The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“On Art and Craftwork” (1797), “On Objects Portrayed
in Visual Arts” (1797), and “On Strict Aesthetic Judgments”
(1798/1799)

JOHANN WOLFGANG GOETHE

These three short pieces by Goethe are the earliest articulations of a long-standing debate about the relationship between art and fashion. Goethe makes clear that the two realms should be absolutely separate from one another. The artist, he claims, must remain apart from the fluctuations of tasteful opinion if he is ever to produce works of art that reflect the eternal verities of beauty and truth. The ideals of classical Greek and Roman art stand far above the passing interests of entertainment, Goethe argues. Yet, as he readily acknowledges, he writes this classicist defense of art just as antiquity has become popular with the general public. He worries that true art will be adopted by a pleasure-seeking audience, who then casts it aside after growing tired of the formal simplicity of the Mediterranean past. Better that the artist never enter into the trap of trying to please the public, for once creativity is sold, the artist will soon end up as a mere craft laborer for some astute manufacturer.

In the essay “On Art and Craftwork” Goethe raises a problem that has continued to plague the art world. For example, Walter Benjamin's famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction” clearly derives inspiration from the anxieties Goethe mentions here. What becomes of the world of art when it has been mechanically reproduced and thereby dispersed everywhere by way of inexpensive copies? Does the original lose its value? Are consumers prepared to contemplate a reproduction as seriously as the original? Goethe worries that consumers will purchase copies to grant themselves a momentary pleasure, thereby turning the work of art into just another luxury. Instead he advocates that connoisseurs appreciate art as part of their aesthetic education. Works of art should be understood in their own right, not as a source of cultural prestige. The meaning of art lies in the formal relationship of its own elements. Art is an organic unity that creates its own meaning, separate from other discourses. Goethe insists that one not grasp art for any reason other than artistic. Politics, religion, prurient eroticism, entertainment, or prestige should not

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