Emigrations of L'art Pour L'art to America

By Schick, Constance Gosselin | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Emigrations of L'art Pour L'art to America


Schick, Constance Gosselin, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


One of the most fascinating paradoxes ofintertextuality involves the spawning of distinct modern national literatures by that most Old World movement that was le Parnasse and its Art-for-Art's-Sake poetics. Within the French literary history of the metropole, the supposedly gratuitous and autonomous aesthetic is deemed to be disengaged and escapist, at best, and/or complicit and conformist, at worst. In a speech delivered shortly after he received the Nobel Prize, Albert Camus castigates the Art-for-Art's-Sake artisan:

   Les fabricants d'art (je n'ai pas encore dit les artistes) de
   l'Europe bourgeoise, avant et apres 1900, ont ainsi accepte
   l'irresponsabilite parce que la responsabilite supposait une
   rupture epuisante avec leur societe [...]. C'est de cette epoque
   que date la theorie de l'art pour l'art qui n'est que la
   revendication de cette irrresponsabilite. L'art pour l'art, le
   divertissement d'un artiste solitaire, est bien justement l'art
   artificiel d'une societe factice et abstraite. (8:33)

In Le Degre zero de l'ecriture, Roland Barthes also admits to the complicity of the craft-oriented art of the generation of post-1850, rather than its escapist disengagement:

   L'ecrivain donne a la societe un art declare, visible a tous
   dans ses normes, et en echange la societe peut accepter
   l'ecrivain; tel Baudelaire tenant a rattacher l'admirable
   prosaisme de sa poesie a Gautier, comme a une sorte de fetiche
   de la forme travaillee, situee sans doute hors du pragmatisme
   de l'activite bourgeoise, et pourtant inseree dans un ordre de
   travaux familiers, controlee par une societe qui reconnaissait
   en elle, non ses reves, mais ses methodes. (57-58)

Ross Chambers's comments on the poetry of Emaux et camees echoes this point of view, excluding Gautier's poetry from Modernism because it was so ensconced in a social economy of comfortable and comforting litote and euphemism. "[D]ouillettement assis" on his poetic divan, Gautier is said to elude both melancholy and social opposition in and by his signed oeuvre, whose transparent yet hard, glass-like veneer served to showcase its author-craftsman as he adhered to the "salut de la communicabilite sociale" (49).

Pierre Bourdieu investigated the role of nineteenth-century French autonomous art in Les Rigles de l'art. Interestingly, his attempts at a"concrete" study of the champ litteraire of the period, that is, a study carried out in terms of the social sciences, evoke the figurative description of the interaction between artist and society as a dance:

   En fait, seule une veritable chronique construite pourrait
   faire sentir concretement que cet univers en apparence
   anarchique et volontiers libertaire--ce qu'il est aussi,
   grace notamment aux mecanismes sociaux qui autorisent et
   favorisent l'autonomie--est le lieu d'une sorte de ballet
   bien regle ou les individus et les groupes dessinent leurs
   figures, toujours en s'opposant les uns aux autres, tantot
   se faisant front, tantot marchant du meme pas [...].
   (my emphasis; 165)

The emigration of Gautier's enamel-and-cameo poetics to New World countries, in particular to Latin America and to French Canada, reveals the slipperiness between art's autonomy and its enlisement as well as between its enlisement and an oppositional engagement. In these "marginal" territories, marginal both because of their distance from the French "source," and because of their relatively underdeveloped or insecure national identity, the opposition and the modernism of Art for Art's Sake is evident. Its importation by and into these American literatures reveals the inherent craftiness of a poetic craft whose irrelevancies and foreignness become relevant and local, whose admiring repetitions become ironic, and whose complicity is an essential requirement for its subversive innovation.

The beginnings of modernismo in Spanish America occurred around 1880. …

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