Art for Art's Sake & Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990

By Gene H. Bell-Villada | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The New Economy, Poetry Displaced, and the Birth of the Doctrine

The poet was sorcerer and seer before he became "artist." His structures were not abstract art, or art for its own sake. . . . [They] came into being to serve not art but religion in its most basic sense.

-- Lord Albert, The Singer of Tales

At the time of Schiller's death in 1805, the ideology of aestheticism did not yet exist anywhere in Europe. A handful of French intellectuals, however, were first becoming aware of recent German philosophy, Kant in particular. Revolutionary turmoil and dictatorship notwithstanding, progressive literati remained weary of old-regime Catholicism and neoclassicism and were hence predisposed to consider new models from elsewhere. The importation of thought and letters from Germany thus held promising prospects. The reception of Kantianism in France nevertheless provides an object lesson in what happens when complex ideas are disseminated among a foreign, latter-day audience. The ensuing gaps, shifts in emphasis, and other alterations can prove quite unsettling.

Elements of Kant made tentative headway in post-Napoleonic France via the work of well-placed popularizers and pedagogues. Meanwhile, around the same time, in print shops and booksellers' offices an entirely new system of cultural supply and demand was taking shape. The twin forces of commercialization and industrialization were fast transforming both the larger economy and the daily textures of French literary life. Among the unintended social formations spawned by this overall change was the underclass of artists in Bohemia, la bohème, a phenomenon known to us mostly through Puccini's romantic (if delightful) opera by that name, but in reality a harsh, brittle milieu of bare survival and dashed hopes. Into this subculture there soon trickled the few selected fragments of Kant's

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