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 7

The Changing Politics of Art for Art's Sake

Let us return once again to Théophile Gautier preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin. The selections cited at some length here have in common a precise and definable historical outlook:

I prefer to a certain useful pot a Chinese pot which is sprinkled with mandarins and dragons. . . . I should most joyfully renounce my rights as a Frenchman and as a citizen to see an authentic picture by Raphael . . . or Princess Borghese. . . . I should very readily agree . . . to the return of that cannibal, Charles X, if he brought me back a hamper of Tokay . . . from his castle in Bohemia. . . . I prefer the sound of screeching fiddles and tambourines to that of the President's little bell. 1 (39-40)

The basic drift in this passage is a wholesale scorn for the prosaic pettiness of the new bourgeois values ("my rights . . . as a citizen") and bourgeois artifacts ("a useful pot," "the President's little bell"), in favor of the aesthetic attractions of institutions ("Charles X," "PrincessBorghese"), artifacts ("Tokay"), and art objects ("Raphael," "a Chinese pot," "fiddles and tambourines") that are pre-bourgeois.

Gautier then takes this temporal contrast to vivid and extravagant heights:

What economist will enlarge our stomach so that it will hold as many beefsteaks as the late Milo of Crotona, who ate an ox? The menu of the Café Anglais . . . seems to me very meagre . . . compared to the menu of Trimalcio's dinner. . . . The little houses on the outskirts of Paris . . . are miserable country cottages if one compares them to the villas of the Roman politicians. (41)

Here, the niggling triviality of bourgeois economists, cafés, and homes is mocked even as antiquity and its hedonistic grandeurs are flamboyantly praised. Similarly, later on in the preface the poplars

-203-

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