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Before the nineteenth-century, originality and individuality were not the most highly prized qualities of art. As for autonomy, or regarding art as separate from social functions, this notion didn’t even exist. During the Renaissance, the artist emerged as an individual assumed to have a unique talent that was in some way useful to those in power—by helping elevate the status of the Church or the State through art—and to society in general, by providing works of rare and incredible beauty that all could enjoy. Nonetheless, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo perceived their paintings and sculptures as a means of elevating and preserving the social order of their times not only as a mark of their individual genius. No doubt, both Leonardo and Michelangelo could afford to select among patrons and to aggravate those they did serve by postponing deadlines to perfect their masterpieces. In this way, they created the blueprint of the temperamental and independent “artistic” personality that would emerge more fully with Romanticism. Despite the increased prestige of masterful artists, however, Renaissance art contributed to the glory of the patrons and the community or the nation it was created for. In other words, art’s undeniable beauty was inseparable from its social usefulness.

As artists’ prestige increased during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so did their relative power and independence from patrons. Romanticism marked this transformation by explicitly declaring the artist to be a creative genius and by regarding individuality and originality as the supreme qualities of true art. Yet for most Romantic poets, writers and artists, as for the Renaissance masters, art was still bound to its social function. The artist or writer imagined by poets like Wordsworth, Lamartine and Hugo spread to the public, through his unique aesthetic sensibility, imagination, discernment and talent, not only aesthetic pleasure but also a heightened and more empathetic moral and political consciousness.

While earlier forms of Romanticism couple social utility and beauty, late Romantic and Modern art and literature would come to disassociate them. As early as the 1830’s, the autonomy of art from society was proclaimed by Théophile Gautier’s phrase, “art for art’s sake,” and by his criticism of the notion that art had to be in any way useful to society. In his writings on art in the 1860’s, Emile Zola transformed Gautier’s provocative and amusing Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin into a characteristically serious, polemical argument. Yet despite the difference in style, his message is resonant with Gautier’s, since Zola also defends the autonomy of art and the individuality and originality of true artists. I’m interested in reexamining here Gautier’s and particularly Zola’s arguments concerning the originality, individuality and autonomy of art because they mark a turning point—and a moment of incredible ambivalence—in what we can call the cultural logic of art. Retrospectively, we can say that these authors articulated the standards that would both establish the autonomy and importance of art as a separate domain and those that would undo the very notion of originality, genius and individuality in art.

Today, these concepts seem almost as dated as the even older notion of artistic genius. Such notions are occasionally resurrected, but usually only to be critiqued, pastiched and spoofed rather than taken seriously. Gautier’s well-known polemic in his 1834 preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin—“the most useful place of a house is the latrine”—seems to have turned into a twisted prophecy almost a hundred years later, when Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, exhibited a urinal as an objet d’art at the 1917 Independents’ Exhibition in New York City. With this partly joking provocation, art took a seemingly irreversible conceptual turn. As the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto convincingly demonstrates, what constitutes art can no longer be discerned visually. Let’s begin to see how the notion of art for art’s sake contributed both to the rise and the fall of art as a privileged domain.

Gautier: L’art pour l’art

Théophile Gautier’s (1811-72) contributions to Parisian culture spanned almost half a century, beginning with his youthful defense of Romanticism, to the aestheticism of his famous Préface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, to his leadership in the circle of formalist poets associated with Le Parnasse. Although he wrote on a wide range of topics, including literature, art and dance, he’s best known for his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834), where he proposes his model of art for art’s sake.

With characteristic panache and irony, Gautier begins his preface with a provocation:

“One of the most ridiculous things of the glorious epoch which we have the fortune to live in is without question the rehabilitation of virtue by all the newspapers, no matter what color they are, red, green or tri-colored.” (Préface a Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1834, Théophile Gautier, Flammarion, Paris, 1966, 25)

It’s not only the literature and journalism of his day that Gautier attacks, but the whole history of French literature from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. He locates the source of the reduction of literature to utility in Neoclassicism, latching on in particular to Molière’s comedy as guilty of infusing morality in art. In Molière’s writing, Gautier charges, every play has a moral; the lovers are duly beautiful and good; the duped appropriately ridiculous and bad yet somehow endearingly human; while the women with common sense show the good sense to be both beautiful and moral. Gautier considers this infusion of morality into literature ridiculous and even dangerous.

To sever art from social utility in general, he maintains, one has to disassociate it first from morality in particular. For, Gautier suggests, it’s in fact the moralizing impulse which modern art preserved from Neoclassicism—the tendency to elevate nature and cultivate bienséance (good manners) in the reading and viewing public—that has degenerated even further during the nineteenth-century into a translation of art into moral and social lessons. Rather than looking at its aesthetic qualities, Gautier charges, modern critics and readers read literature only to ask themselves utilitarian questions such as: “What good is this book? How can we apply it to the moralization and good of the most numerous and impoverished class?” (42)

With the advent of the industrial revolution, increase in readership and the broadening of public education to all social classes of men, what was the inculcation of etiquette or bienséance during the seventeenth-century mostly for the benefit and entertainment of the social elite is transformed, during the nineteenth-century, into a broader moral education of all social classes: of what was rather abstractly called humanity itself. This explains why, Gautier complains, modern literature is no longer literary. Like journalism and conduct books, it brainwashes the working classes into adopting middle class values in the name of social progress. In the face of such “serious” goals, Gautier suggests facetiously, the creation of an art that does not aim at improving the human condition seems downright frivolous and irrelevant. (42) But only if we accept these erroneous premises, the author adds.

Gautier proposes an expedient solution to this conflation of literature and utility: severing art from its social function once and for all. To defend this radical and new proposition, Gautier relies upon the conventional and old philosophical concept of Beauty:

“Nothing which is beautiful is indispensable to life… Nothing is truly beautiful except that which is useless; all that is useful is ugly, because it’s the expression of some need, and those of mankind are ignoble and disgusting, as is his poor and weak nature—The most useful place of a house is the latrines.” (45)

Gautier assumes that we all know what the concept of Beauty is from the commonplace examples he gives: pretty women and lovely flowers. In the absence of a more specific definition that might unite these particular examples, Gautier presents a negative definition that fits his argument: beauty is not opposed to ugliness, as we might believe, but rather to usefulness. Which is why, the author playfully suggests, the most useful place of a house–the toilet–is also the ugliest. His logic implies: a pretty young woman is beautiful; a useful old toilet is ugly. Wouldn’t you prefer the former to the latter? An obvious answer to this question—it depends on what you want to do– is prosaically utilitarian by Gautier’s standards. Fortunately, his argument isn’t meant to be reasonable or systematic, but rather polemical: it serves as a battle cry for a new attitude towards art and literature. Even his examples–pardon the pun–aren’t meant to hold water. To offer just one example, there’s nothing about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel’s social usefulness as a place of worship and as a celebration of the glory of the Roman state that takes away from its beauty.

Gautier’s preface is less notable for its argumentation than for its poignancy, novelty and influence upon subsequent currents in art and literature. It left a particularly strong impression upon the poets of Le Parnasse, who used his arguments to defend aesthetic formalism in poetry both against the impassioned lyricism of Romanticism and against the proclamations of the social value of art made by realist and naturalist literature. This legacy was perpetuated by formalism and by certain trends in modern and postmodern literature, art and criticism. We find traces of it even in Clement Greenberg’s influential defense of conceptual art and even in Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation.

In these later currents, Gautier’s original appeal to beauty was, for the most part, dropped. What remained was the notion that art owes nothing to society. The principle of the autonomy of art made plausible by Gautier’s preface has come to carry with it several corollaries:

1. Art is a separate domain all unto itself; 2. Art cannot be judged by common standards of morality or utility. Art is therefore separate from morality and religion as well; 3. In being a separate aesthetic realm, art is not easily accessible. Often it takes a very refined, sensitive temperament and perhaps even a team of experts trained in that art to explain it to the broader public. Art may seem to be within everyone’s grasp, but in fact appreciating it requires a deeper, elite understanding; 4. When judged by the standards of social utility—does it lead to an improvement of the human condition; does it teach us anything useful—art is irrelevant.

In the next few posts, I’ll explain how these tenets have become the blessing and the curse inherited by modern and contemporary art.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com