The Idea, the Phrase, the Problem
In the Far East what is called the "esthetic emotion" still retains a religious dimension, even among intellectuals. -- Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
Art for Art's Sake. The phrase today sounds slightly quaint. It inevitably suggests Oscar Wilde and the epigrams he gave common currency in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. To our English and American ears, the aestheticist ideal is most aptly summed up in such provocative Wildean notions as "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written, that is all"; or that antimoralistic assertion, "No artist has ethical sympathies. . . . Vice and virtue are materials for art"; or Wilde's most ironic and perverse of reflections, "All art is quite useless."
To associate Art for Art's Sake so exclusively with Oscar Wilde, however, is to blind ourselves to the wider spread of aestheticist doctrines, both past and present. The idea neither begins nor ends with Wilde, whose aphorisms are actually a distillation and indeed a simplification of some arguments learned from his high Oxford mentors, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, while his general vision is an outlook consciously akin to that of French Romantic and Symbolist poets such as Gautier and Baudelaire. Baudelaire for his part had learned a few lessons from Poe, who had misread Coleridge, whereas Gautier early on had set forth a much-simplified if memorable version of a theory taught by some Parisian professors, notably Victor Cousin.
Meanwhile, Cousin's lectures take their initial cue from the weighty treatises of a remote, recondite thinker named Immanuel Kant; and Kant's magisterial aesthetic arguments in the Critique of Judgment, in turn, stem ultimately from the rapt intuitionism of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. (The Kantian Idealist traditions, conversely, were to become influential in the critical endeavors of Coleridge and