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Art-as-Such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics

Authors(s): M. H. Abrams
Source: Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 38, No. 6 (Mar.,
1985), pp. 8-33
Published by: American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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Stated Meeting Report

Art-as-Such: The Sociology
of Modern Aesthetics

M. H. Abrams
For the last two centuries the professional
philosophy of art, and more recently the prac

tical criticism of the various arts, has been

grounded on a theory which, for easy reference,

I shall call "art-as-such." This theory uses a very

distinctive terminology to make the following


(1) "Art" is used as a term interchangeable

with "the fine arts," which consist primarily of
five arts: poetry (or literature), painting, sculp
ture, music, and architecture. The considera

tion of these essentially related products

constitutes an area of inquiry which is sui generis.

(2) What defines a work of art is its status

as an object to be "contemplated," and contem

plated "disinterestedly"? that is, attended to "as

such," for its own sake, without regard to the

personal interests or the possessiveness or the
desires of the perceiver, and without reference
to its truth or its utility or its morality. A work

of art may or may not be true to the world or

serve practical ends or have moral effects, but
such considerations are held to be supervenient

upon (or in some views, destructive of) the

defining experience ? that is, the absorbed and

disinterested contemplation of the product for
itself, simply as a work of art.
(3) A work of art is accordingly described
as an object that is self-sufficient, autonomous,

independent. It is asserted to be an end in it

self, not a means to an external end, and its
artistic value is said to be intrinsic, not extrin
sic, to its own being. The work, in other words,

is conceived as an entity that exists simply in

order to be looked at or read or listened to with

an absorbed, exclusive, and disinterested at


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One can illustrate such theories by two terse

but comprehensive statements. One is by T E.
Hulme, whose views had an important forma
tive influence on T. S. Eliot and the American

New Criticism that began about 1930. "Con

templation," Hulme says, is "a detached interest."

The object of aesthetic contemplation is

something framed apart by itself and regard

ed without memory or expectation, simply
as being itself, as end not means, as individu

al not universal.

The other is a felicitous summation by Iris

Murdoch (a practicing novelist as well as a
philosopher) in her Romanes Lecture on art
in 1976:

Good art [provides the] clearest experience of

something grasped as separate and precious

and beneficial and held quietly and unpos

sessively in the attention.

Such formulations are usually presented by

aesthetic philosophers and critics as universal
and timeless truths about works of art, and we
tend to think of the history of art theory as a
sustained movement toward the triumphant dis
covery of these truths, sidetracked and delayed

by various false leads. The historical facts,

however, make this view a dubious one. For
more than two thousand years after the philo
sophical consideration of one or another of the
arts was inaugurated by Plato and Aristotle,
theorists and critics did not even class together
the diverse products that we now identify as "the
fine arts." Instead, they grouped one or another

of these arts with mathematics or with the

natural sciences or with a practical art such as
agriculture or shoemaking. They proposed no
terms for specifying a distinctive or essential
artistic property, nor for talking about works
of art in a way that undertook to be distinctive

for that class and exclusive of all other human

artifacts. Instead, they discussed one of the arts

at a time; and when they paralleled that art to

another of what we now call "the fine arts"?

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especially poetry to painting?it was for limit

ed comparative purposes, and with reference
only to selected features. And during those two
millennia, it occurred to no thinker to assert
that a product of even one of the human arts
exists in order to be contemplated disinterest
edly, for its own sake, without reference to
things, events, human beings, purposes, or ef
fects outside its sufficient and autonomous self.

The historical fact is that the theory and

vocabulary of art-as-such was introduced, quite

abruptly, only some two or three centuries ago
into what had hitherto been a relatively con
tinuous development of the traditional views
and terminology that philosophers and critics

had inherited from Greek and Roman antiq

uity. And in retrospect, it becomes clear that
the revolution effected in the theory of art in
volved a replacement of the implicit understruc
ture of traditional theory by a radically different

Theorists of the various arts, from classical
Greece through most of the eighteenth centu
ry, whatever their divergencies, had assumed
the maker's stance toward a work of art, and
had analyzed its attributes in terms of a con
struction model. That is, they posited a poem
or any other work of art to be an opus, a thing
that is made according to a techne or ars, that
is, a craft, each with its requisite skills for select

ing materials and shaping them into a work

designed to effect certain external ends, such
as achieving pleasure or instruction or emotion
al effects on an audience, as well as for adapt
ing the work to a particular social occasion or
function. It is clear that from the viewpoint of
this construction model, the patent differences

between the materials and practical skills of a

poet, a painter, a sculptor, a musician, or an
architect would keep these diverse occupations
and products from being classified together in
any systematic fashion, and for other than limit

ed purposes. The critical undertaking, conse

quently, was to deal with a single art ?most
often, in classical time, poetry or a subclass such

as tragedy; and the critical treatises were

designed at least as much to guide a poet in


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writing a particular kind of good poem as to

help a reader to judge whether, and in what
ways, the poem is good or bad. In this orienta
tion to the making of a poem, Aristotle's Poet
ics, whatever its important differences, is
congruent with the views of Horace, whose
enormously influential Ars Po?tica is explicitly
a how-to document; that is, it is a verse-letter
addressed to a novice instructing him how to
write poems that will appeal most widely and
enduringly to a discriminating readership. In
this aspect of their treatises, both these writers

are at one with the rhetoricians and with Lon

ginus; and all of these thinkers together estab
lished the basic mode and operative terms for
dealing with the verbal, and later the plastic
and musical, arts that persisted, without radi

cal innovations, through the seventeenth


In sharp contrast, theories of art-as-such

tacitly presuppose, not the maker's stance to his

work in process, but the perceiver's stance to

the finished product; and they formulate their

discussion not on a construction model, but on

a contemplation model. That is, they assume
that the paradigmatic situation, in defining and

analyzing art, is that in which a lone perceiver

confronts an isolated work, however it happened
to get made, and simply attends to the features

that it manifests to his exclusive attention.

What I want to do is to sketch the emergence

of the point of view and operative vocabulary
of art-as-such, and then to investigate some of
the attendant conditions, both social and in
tellectual, that may explain why, after so many
centuries of speculation, this radical innovation
appeared suddenly just when it did and why
it developed rapidly in just the way it took.

The perceiver's stance and the contemplation

model were not products of late nineteenth

century aestheticism, but of the eighteenth cen

tury. More precisely, they appeared at the end

of the first decade of the eighteenth century,
in the writings of Joseph Addison and of the
third Earl of Shaftesbury; only eighty years


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later, in 1790, they had developed into the full

modern formulation of art-as-such in Im

manuel Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

Let me stress what, for our enterprise, are

salient features of Kant's theory. Despite its
epoch-making importance for the philosophy
of art, there is hardly a single observation about

the nature and experience of an aesthetic ob

ject that Kant did not find in his eighteenth
century precursors, English and German, be
ginning with Addison and Shaftesbury In fact,
Kant does not even argue for, but simply ac
cepts, certain concepts, already current, and de

votes himself to grounding and systematizing

these concepts by showing how the uniquely
distinctive aesthetic experience (what he calls
"the pure judgment of taste") is possible, as he
puts it, a priori ? that is, how it can be account

ed for by reference to the faculties and their

operations that the mind brings to all its ex
perience. And his theory relies squarely and ex

clusively on the perceiver's stance and the

contemplation model. As Kant posits the situ

ation that he assumes to be paradigmatic for
the philosophy of aesthetics: a pure judgment
of taste "combines delight or aversion immedi

ately [i.e., without the intervention of "concepts"]

with the bare contemplation [Betrach

tung] of the object irrespective of its use or of

any end." Only after he has established this

frame of reference does Kant go on, in the sec

ond book of his Critique, to discuss what he calls
die sch?nen K?nste, or fine arts; his list of the
major arts is the one that had recently become,
and still remains, the standard one of poetry,
painting, sculpture, architecture, and music ?to
which he adds the other arts, prominent in his
time, of eloquence and landscape gardening.
In this second section of his treatise, Kant also
introduces the topic of the production of a work
of art. His aim, however, is precisely opposed
to traditional constructive theories, which un
dertook to establish the principles by which an
artist deliberately selects and orders his materi
als in order to effect preconceived ends. Kant's
enterprise, on the contrary, is to explain how
the producing artist, despite such concepts and


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intentions, nonetheless manages, however unin

tentionally, to achieve a product that meets the
criteria already established by reference to the

concept-free and end-independent encounter

between a percipient and a ready-made aesthet
ic work.
In discussing the nature of the normative aes

thetic encounter, Kant encompasses all the key

concepts and terms that constitute the theory
of art-as-such in our own time. Crucially, the
percipient's aesthetic judgment is, he says, "dis
interested" or "a pure disinterested delight," in
the sense that it is "purely contemplative" (bloss
kontemplativ), hence "impartial"?that is, it is free
of any reference to the interests or acquisitive
ness or desires of the perceiver, and is indiffer

ent even to the reality of the thing that is

represented in the mode of art. The object con
templated, Kant says, "pleases for its own sake"

(f?r sich selbst), in strict independence from what

he calls the "external" ends of utility or of moral
ity. A "fine art," accordingly, is "intrinsically fi

nal, devoid of an [extrinsic] end." In Kant's

overall view, a human work of art, no less than

a natural object, is to be regarded as having

no end other than simply to exist, to be just
what it is for our disinterested aesthetic con
Aspects of Kant's theory were quickly adopt

ed and developed by a number of German

metaphysicians, including Schiller, Schelling,

Hegel, and Schopenhauer, and so entered the
mainstream of aesthetic philosophy. What needs
to be stressed is the rapidity and completeness

of this Copernican revolution in the theory of

art. In the course of a single century a great
variety of human products, from poetry to ar
chitecture, conspicuously diverse in their me
dia and required skills, as well as in the occasion

and social function of individual works within

each art ?products of arts which hitherto had

been grouped with diverse human crafts, or
even sciences ? came to constitute a system of
"the fine arts"; that is, a single, essentially relat

ed, and unique class of products. The construc

tion model, which had treated each of the arts
as a procedure for selecting and adapting its


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distinctive elements to preconceived ends and

uses, was replaced by the contemplation model,

which treated the products of all the fine arts

as ready-made things existing simply as objects

of rapt attention. And the essential feature

predicated of the fine arts, setting them off from

all cognitive, practical, and moral pursuits, was

that each work is to be experienced disinterest
edly, for its own sake, unalloyed by reference
to the world, or to human life or concerns, or
to any relations, ends, or values outside its all
sufficing self.
A conceptual revolution so sudden and dras
tic cannot be plausibly explained as an evolu
tion of the traditional ideas about the arts; the
orientation and operative terms of art-as-such,
as I have pointed out, were entirely alien to that

tradition. To account for the revolution we

must, I think, turn to external factors which
enforced, or at least fostered, the new way of
thinking. Let us pose this question: Was there,
just preceding and during the eighteenth cen
tury, a radical alteration in the social conditions
and social uses of the diverse products that came

during that period to be grouped as the fine

arts ? changes both concurrent and correlative
with the conceptual changes I have outlined?
This is, broadly speaking, a question concern
ing the sociology of art; but whereas altering
social conditions have often been used to ex
plain changes in the subject matter, forms, and
styles of practicing artists, I shall instead ad
vert to social conditions in order to explain a
drastic change in the general theory of art ? that
is, in the focal concepts by which the arts were

identified, classified, and systematically


A conspicuous phenomenon in the seven

teenth and eighteenth centuries was the rapid

spread of a mode of life, hitherto limited to a
privileged few, that I shall label "connoisseur
ship." By this term I mean the devotion of part

of one's leisure to the study and enjoyment of

the products of an art for the interest and pleas

ure they afford. Since the attitude and theory


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of art-as-such emerged in England and was de

veloped in Germany, I shall focus on the so

cial phenomenon of the spread of

connoisseurship in those two countries.

We can begin in the seventeenth century with

the introduction of two new terms from the

Italian into the English critical lexicon. The first
term was gusto, translated as "taste," and applied

in the metaphorical sense of a capacity to

respond to the beauty or harmonious order of

objects, whether natural or artificial. This

responsiveness was considered to be an innate

sensibility, inherited by individuals in various
degrees, yet capable of being trained so as to
constitute a socially desirable "good taste" or a
"polite" (that is, a polished, upper-class) taste;
and even of being so informed by the acquired
knowledge of the "rules" of a particular art that
it becomes a "just taste" or "correct taste." This

new term quickly became a staple in critical

discussion, where it obviously served to empha
size the perceiver's point of vantage to a finished
artifact. (Note that in 1790 Kant labeled the
normative aesthetic response by the deliberately
paradoxical phrase: "a pure judgment o? taste?)

The second, and related, word from the

Italian is "virtuoso." This was introduced into

the English vocabulary in 1622 by Henry

Peacham, in his book on the requisites of an

upper-class education that he entitled The Com

plete Gentleman. Men who are "skilled" in such
antiquities as "statues, inscriptions, and coins,"
Peacham says, "are by the Italians termed vir
tuosi? In the course of the seventeenth century,

the term "virtuoso" came to be applied to a

mode of life increasingly engaged in by gen
tlemen of the leisure class who applied them

selves to one or both of two pursuits. One

pursuit was collecting, and developing a degree

of expertise about, the curiosities of natural
history and the contrivances of contemporary
technology. The other was collecting, and de
veloping an informed taste for appraising, var
ious artifacts, which included an extraordinary

range of rarities and bric-a-brac, but most

prominently paintings and statuary. By the end

of the seventeenth century, the term "virtuoso"


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had already become derogatory, largely because

of the devastating attacks by Restoration wits
against the pedantry and fondness for natural
and artificial oddities by the science virtuoso.
The life-style of the aristocratic art virtuoso
nonetheless continued to flourish and expand
in the eighteenth century, although now under

a new title, this time imported from France,

of "connoisseur."

The English painter Jonathan Richardson,

with great fanfare, announced in 1719 "a new
science to the world" which, he says, since "it

is yet without a name," he will call "the


out that in England, unlike in Italy, although

there are many "gentlemen of a just and deli
cate taste in music, poetry, and all kinds of liter

ature. . .very few [are] lovers and connoisseurs

in painting." His great endeavor, he says, is "to

persuade our nobility and gentry to become

lovers of paintings and connoisseurs. . .by
shewing the dignity, certainty, pleasure and ad

vantage of that science."

Note two features of Richardson's exposition.

He points out, first, that in England an

aristocratic connoisseurship ?which he equates,
using our earlier term, with "a just and deli
cate taste ? already exists for poetry and music.

He now undertakes to add painting (and, later

in his book, sculpture) to this class ? thereby
linking, for his purposes, four of what were soon

to be grouped as the fine arts. He does so,

however, not on the ground that these arts pos

sess a common nature or shared objective fea
tures, but solely on the ground that they are

all capable of a common function or social

role ?that of yielding to the perceiver what he

describes as "at once an intellectual and a sen
sual pleasure," that is enhanced for "those who
have learned to see these things." Second, he re
veals that a prime value of connoisseurship, in
addition to the refined pleasure that it yields,
is its conspicuous uselessness, which makes it
an index that one belongs to the leisure class ?
in his term, to "our nobility and gentry." Con
noisseurship, Richardson points out, is "not for
the vulgar" (that is, the common people). The


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fact that it is a nonproductive, nonutilitarian

way of employing one's time is what enhances
the "dignity" of a connoisseur, making him "al

ways respected and esteemed."

The virtuoso vogue in the seventeenth cen
tury (as Walter Houghton has pointed out) had
all along been "strongly class-conscious," flaunt
ing a leisure-time avocation free of material and

utilitarian ends as a sign of social rank un

achievable by what a number of virtuosi, like

Peacham, had called "the Vulgar" and requir

ing a cultivated knowledge and taste that serves

to distinguish the "polite" class from social

climbers. This defensiveness of the landed up

per classes against interlopers from below is it

self an index to the instability o? the established

class structure in England, in an era of new

wealth acquired by flourishing commercial and
manufacturing enterprises. But the rapidly en
larging class of the well-to-do in the eighteenth

century were not to be foiled by such defen

sive tactics. They simply took over from "the
nobility and gentry" the cultivation of connois

seurship, in part as a pleasant pursuit to fill a

new-found leisure, but also, clearly, because it
served as a prominent indicator of the gentle
manly or "polite" status to which they aspired.

In his Spectator paper on "Taste," published in

1712, Addison tells his large, primarily middle
class readership that since "the word taste arises
very often in conversation, I shall endeavor to

give some account of it and to lay down

rules. . . how we may acquire that fine taste of

writing which is so much talked of among the
polite world." Such a deliberate cultivation of
connoisseurship in the eighteenth century by

a rapidly expanding part of the population

resulted in a conspicuous set of social innova

tions. I refer to the sudden appearance and ac
celerating development, for the first time in
Western history, of a great variety of institu
tions and arrangements for making one after
another of the objects of "fine taste"?that is,
products of the diverse arts ?accessible, usually
for pay, to an ever-growing public. I have time


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to give only a brief overview of this remarka

ble but neglected social phenomenon, in each
of what at that time came to be classified as
"the fine arts," that is, the nonutilitarian arts.
And first, literature. In the latter seventeenth

century, secular literature was still being writ

ten largely under the patronage of the nobility
and of political parties; an author was supported

by writing to order, as an occasion or commis

sion required, or else to gain favor with the pa
tron or patrons on whom he depended for a

livelihood. A century later, this system had

given way to one in which booksellers paid for

and published literary works, and so made

authors reliant on the sale of their books to the

general public. By Dr. Johnson's time, in Ger

many as well as England, there existed for the
first time a reading public in the modern sense,

large enough to support, though in many in

stances on a level of bare subsistence, a sub
stantial number of writers by the books they
bought. In this period new literary forms were

invented to satisfy the expanding demand ?

above all the novel, which at first pretended to

be both true and edifying, but soon relaxed into
the candid condition of being produced to be
read merely for the pleasure in the fiction, by

a readership now composed in large part by

tradesmen, and especially the newly-idle wives

and daughters of tradesmen. Another commer
cial institution was invented, the circulating
library, to make literature, and especially nov
els, cheaply available to those who could not
afford, or chose not, to buy them outright. This

was the age also of the emergence and rapid

development of various types of periodical pub
lications. One was the critical review, which
served to guide the public in the appreciation
and appraisal of works of literature. Another

was the magazine, so called because it includ

ed a variety of prose and verse forms. A clear
indication that such new publications owed part

of their appeal to upper-class aspirations is the

fact that the first periodical of this latter type,

published in the 1690s, was named The Gentle

mans Journal, and that in the next century the


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most successful example (it endured until 1914)

was named The Gentlemans Magazine.
It was, then, in the eighteenth century that
literature became a commodity, subject to the
exchange values of the marketplace, with all the

consequences of such a condition. But for our

present purpose, note that both books and

magazines incorporated literary forms that were

bought to be read by a reader in isolation, for

the interest and pleasure of doing so, indepen
dently of any practical purpose or specific oc
casion, and at a distance from their author and
his circumstances. It was in 1710 that the term
belles lettres was imported from France, to signi

fy those literary works which were not doctri

nal or utilitarian or instructional, but simply
appealed to taste, as writings to be read for
pleasure. In the course of time "belles lettres"
became simply "literature" and replaced the
earlier generic term "poetry," which was based
on the construction model; for in the root sense
that endured through the Renaissance, "poetry"

signified the art of constructing a "poem"?a

word derived from the Greek poiema, "a made

Music. Through the Renaissance, composed

music (as distinguished from folk-music) had
been available to a broad, nonaristocratic au
dience only in churches, or on the occasion of
public festivals. The latter seventeenth centu
ry, however, saw the emergence of the earliest

organizations for making music public ?that

is, accessible to all who were able and willing
to pay to hear it. Examples are the Abendmusiken

and Collegia M?sica in various German towns,

then in Holland and elsewhere. In Restoration

London, regular public concerts came to be

offered in a number of taverns; and the first

hall specifically designed for public concerts was

constructed in the York buildings. The earli

est of the great public gardens, Vauxhall, be

gan to provide instrumental and vocal

programs both of light and serious music, and

was frequented by all classes of citizens, from
the high nobility down through merchants and

their apprentices ?together with the usual

camp-followers of such diverse crowds. In the


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process of the eighteenth century, public

concerts ?music for profit, as a commodity

art?became a matter of course, not only in

London (as in other major European cities) but
also in cathedral towns, the university towns,
the new industrial cities, and even in many vil

lages, where groups of amateur musicians

offered performances for a small admission fee.

Such concerts included what, in their origin,

had been a diversity of compositions to serve
different social purposes; all were now equiva
lently presented, however, for no other end than

to provide pleasure to a broad audience ?

including, specifically, the tired businessman.

As one English commentator put it in 1725,

music is "a charming Relaxation to the Mind,
when fatigued with the Bustle of Business." Var

ious new musical forms, designed to be suita

ble for performance to a large audience and to
be both attractive and intelligible to untrained
listeners, were developed to satisfy the grow
ing demand ?most prominently, the sympho
ny scored for a large orchestra, which was for
the middle-class public very much what the new

novel was for the middle-class reading public.

Painting and sculpture I'll deal with in conjunc

tion. There were contemporary and parallel in

novations in the arrangements for providing
public access to pictures and statues. The Con

tinental Grand Tour, usually lasting several

years and with Italy and Rome as its chief goal,

had by the seventeenth century become almost

obligatory as a finishing school for the sons of
the high aristocracy in England and elsewhere;
and some graduates of that school emulated no
ble or rich Italian collectors of the visual arts?a

vogue that had begun in Italy in the early

Renaissance ? by buying the works they had
learned to prize. Enormous collections were
gathered ?by purchase, or not infrequently as
loot following a military conquest ?by princes
and noble landowners, then by wealthy mer
chants and industrialists, in many cities of Eu

rope, and notably in London. In England,

private collectors, from the late seventeenth

through the eighteenth century, acquired the
bulk of the sculpture and paintings that have


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ever since made England a major place for the

study of the art of Europe, both classical and


Some collectors were doubtless, in some part,

impersonal connoisseurs of works of painting

and sculpture; but their motives were also ac

quisitive and proprietary, and they were of

course very few in number. Our concern is with

the growing number of nonowners who visit

ed such collections because of interest in the
works themselves. Through most of the seven
teenth century, access to the princely galleries
had, with few exceptions, been restricted to per

sons of quality and to qualified scholars. But

gradually, as the vogue of art connoisseurship
spread, and in response to increasing demands,

a number of private galleries were at first de

facto, then officially, converted into the first pub

lic museums. The British Museum was estab

lished as a national institution in 1759, followed

in 1773 by the establishment of the Vatican

Museum, as well as by the Uffizi gallery in

Florence; from then to our own time the pub
lic collections have, like insatiable sponges, ab
sorbed ever more of the major works in private


Other institutional innovations served to feed

the growing appetite for the visual arts. Attend

ing public auctions of visual arts became a

popular amusement; Sotheby's was founded in

the 1740s, and Christie's in 1762. To visit an
nual exhibitions sponsored by academies of liv
ing painters became nothing short of a craze
and filled both building and street with crowds

of people. Horace Walpole, with his union of

caustic wit and sense of gentility, wrote in 1779

that "the taste for virtu has become universal;
persons of all ranks and degrees set up for con

noisseurs; and even the lowest people tell

familiarly of Hannibal Scratchi, Paul Varnish,

and Raphael Angelo." Walpole's comment is a

humorous exaggeration of the remarkable

diffusion of interest in the visual arts, while his

defensive snobbery reminds us of the persist

ing function of connoisseurship as a sign of so

cial rank. To cite another example: in 1776


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Thomas Martyn published in two volumes The

English Connoisseur, a guide to collections of
painting and sculpture "in the palaces and seats
of the nobility and principal gentry of England,"
intended specifically for the instruction of what

he calls "the rising Connoisseur." Now, "the ris

ing connoisseur," translated into modern so
ciologese, is "the upwardly mobile connoisseur";

and Martyn's book is motivated, he tells us, by

"the great progress which the polite arts have

lately made in England, and the attention

which is now paid them by almost all ranks of



In sum: during the span of less than one

hundred years, an extensive institutional revo

lution had been effected, with the result that,

by the latter eighteenth century, the cultural sit

uation in England (as, to various degrees, in

Germany and other countries) was recogniza
bly the present one, with a large, primarily

middle-class public for literature, together with

public theaters, public concerts of music, and
public galleries and museums of painting and
sculpture. We now take such a situation so en
tirely for granted that it requires an effort of
the historical imagination to realize the radi
cal difference this made in the social role of the

arts and, as a consequence, in what philoso

phers and critics assumed to be the standard

situation when theorizing about them. Through
the Renaissance and later, works of music,

painting, and sculpture had been produced

mainly to order, on commissions by a church

man, prince, wealthy merchant, town council,
or guild; very often they were produced for a
specific function or occasion, religious or secu
lar; and the accomplished work had been ex
perienced by some members of its audience, no
doubt, as the occasion for what we now call an
"aesthetic experience," but at the same time as
thoroughly embedded in a particular institu
tion or event, and as an integral component in
a complex of human activities and functions.
Now, however, the new institution of the pub
lic concert might include pieces, both vocal and


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instrumental, which had originally served to

intensify sacred feelings in a religious ceremo
ny, or to add splendor and gaiety to a private

or public celebration, or to provide melodic

rhythms for social dancing ?together with new

pieces written for the concert hall itself. There

exist numerous paintings which represent a

room in an eighteenth-century gallery or muse

um. One can see that they display side by side

statuary that was both ancient and recent, pa

gan and Christian, sacred and profane. And

the walls display in close array, extending the
length of the room and from floor to ceiling,
paintings that were originally made to serve as
altar pieces, or else as reminiscences of classi
cal myth, moral allegories, a Flemish bedroom
record of a marriage, memorials of historic
events, representations of a family estate, or or

naments for a noble salon. All such products,

in the new modes of public distribution or dis
play, have been pulled out of their intended con
texts, stripped of their diverse religious, social,

and political functions, and given a single and

uniform new role: as items to be read or

listened to or looked at simply as a poem, a
musical piece, a statue, a painting.
Suppose, while you are looking at a paint

ing of the Madonna and Child in its original

location in a chapel, you are asked: "What's the
painting for?" A manifest answer is: "To illus
trate, beautifully and expressively, an article of
faith, and thereby to heighten devotion." Now
suppose that same painting moved to the wall

of a museum and hung, let's say, next to a

representation of Leda and the Swan. To the

question "What's it for?" the obvious answer
now is: "To be contemplated, admired, and en
joyed." Note that each of these is a valid answer

to the same question ?within the institutional

setting in which that question is asked.
I have reserved for special treatment architec
ture, the fifth of the standard fine arts, because
it is an especially instructive instance of the way

in which an altered social role effected a dras

tic alteration in the conception of a craft. For

of all the fine (that is, nonutilitarian) arts, ar

chitecture seems the most obviously and


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thoroughly utilitarian, in that a building is spe

cifically designed to serve as a shelter and to

subserve a variety of other purposes ?to be a
sacred place for worship, to house a great fam
ily and its retainers, or to function as head
quarters for a political or social or economic
body; as well as to announce by its magnitude,
formal symbolism, and ornament, the status
and wealth of the institution or family for which

it is intended. On the Continental Grand Tour

in the seventeenth century, however, one aim

had been to seek out a diversity of ancient and
modern structures, simply as instances of ar
chitectural achievement. Such a pursuit, hither
to limited to a few members of the aristocracy,
grew enormously in the eighteenth century. For

this was precisely the period both of the inau

guration and the rapid development of a new
human activity, and that was the leisure-time
journey, not to Italy but within England itself,
and for no other purpose than to get acquainted

with places and things. Before the end of the

century, this activity had become so widespread

as to require an invented word; that new word

was "tourist." The company of English tourists

included increasing numbers of the middle

classes. A principal aim of the tour, in addi

tion to viewing picturesque landscapes, was to

visit great country houses ?many of these soon
provided (for a fee, of course) detailed guide

books to the estate ?in order to admire and

judge the works of art, the interior appoint

ments, and the landscaped gardens, and very
prominently, the architectural structure itself.
It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that

in the year 1775 alone, close to 2,500 tourists

visited the famous country estate at Stowe;
multiply that number by ten or twelve, to cor
respond to the increase in the present popula

tion of England, and it turns out that the

popularity of English tourism, very soon after

that activity began, nearly equalled its popular
ity now. You will recall that the turning point
of the novel Pride and Prejudice, which Jane

Austen began writing in 1798, occurs when

Elizabeth Bennet is taken by her aunt and un
cle, the Gardiners ?who, the author stresses,


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are "in trade," members of the merchant mid

dle class ?on a vacation tour that includes her

rejected lover Darcy's great estate of Pember

ley, at a time when its owner is supposedly


It is also noteworthy that in the eighteenth

century a flourishing market developed for
books of engraved views of royal palaces and
famous urban and country houses. Buildings
can't easily be relocated in museums, but these

published engravings served as a museum

without walls, hence as yet another vehicle to

move works of architecture into their new and
widespread social role as, like the products of
sculpture and painting, a set of things to be
pored over, as such, simply for their capacity
to interest and give pleasure to the observer.
What had been a utilitarian craft thus became

an art ?a fine art.


What we find, then, beginning late in the

seventeenth century, is the emergence of an
astonishing number of institutions for making
a diversity of human artifacts public ?as com
modities, usually for pay?in order to satisfy
a burgeoning demand for the delights, but also
for the social distinction, of connoisseurship.

The sum of these changes constitute a new

"form of life" (in Wittgenstein's phrase) in the
leisure-time pursuits both of the high-born and
the newly well-to-do. Since humankind is an

enquiring and loquacious being, a new form

of life calls for an appropriate language ?a set

of terms for sorting things out, and for sys
tematizing and analyzing them, in accordance
with the altered mode of common or normal

experience. In such an enterprise, the normal

experience readily becomes the normative ex
perience. The new critical language, according
ly, does not envision a product of art from the
traditional point of view of its expert construc
tor or maker, but from the point of view of the

connoisseur, who confronts the work as a com

pleted product which he attends to as an iso
lated thing, for the sake of the satisfactions that

doing so yields. And certain hitherto largely


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distinct and diversely classified human

products ?especially poetry, music, painting,

sculpture, architecture ? since all of them have

now acquired, on a broad scale, the same so

cial role as standard objects for connoisseur

ship, are for the first time classified together

as an entirely distinctive class of things called
"the fine arts." Addison, with his customary acu

men, identified this new principle of classifi

cation when he remarked in The Spectator that
the "fine arts derive their laws and rules from
the genuine taste of mankind, not from the
principles of these arts themselves." This is a
contemporary recognition of the turn from the

construction model to the spectator model for

the newly identified class of the fine arts; and
for the philosophy of this class of objects, the

German theorist Baumgarten in the mid

eighteenth century coined the term "aesthetics."

In such a philosophy, works of fine art,

despite their conspicuous differences in physi

cal and other attributes, are naturally enough
assumed to share a distinctive quality or essence

that enables them to perform their common

role as objects of connoisseurship. This role,

although often requiring payment of a fee, was,

anomalously, not utilitarian or moral but spe

cifically a diversion or escape from ordinary
utilitarian and moral interests and pursuits.
The essential feature that qualified a product
to be accounted a work of fine art was accord
ingly identified as its inherent capacity to serve

as a sufficient and rewarding object of atten

tion as an end in itself?a very elusive, non

material feature that Kant called its "beauty"

or "form" or "aesthetic quality."
To put what I have just said in a different
philosophical idiom: the condition and status
of being a work of art, in accordance with the
standard definition of art-as-such, is not an in
herent fact but an institutional fact. The most
prominent institution which functions to con
fer this status has become the public museum;
the exemplary art-of-arts, which over the cen
turies had been poetry, has become painting,
in which the product is hung on a wall and iso
lated from its surroundings by a material frame;


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and the disinterested and absorbed contempla

tion of an isolated art object ?the paradigmatic
experience of the theory of art-as-such ? is typi

cally a museum experience. The power of be

ing accepted and displayed by a reputable

museum to transform a utilitarian object into

a work of fine art was melodramatically re

vealed when Marcel Duchamp took a very

homely utility, machine-made and mass

produced?a urinal ?from the thousands of its

duplicates and had it mounted on a museum

wall. Many of us, once the initial shock or in

dignation or derisive laughter has worn off, suc

cumb to the institutional compulsion, assume

the aesthetic attitude, and begin to contemplate

the object as such, in its austerely formal and

monochromatic harmony.

Let me anticipate what some of you are no
doubt thinking, and admit that the conditions
for the emergence of the theory of art-as-such

are not so simple as I have made out. In this

short presentation, I have had to omit a num
ber of complications and qualifications. Above
all, I have omitted a surprising fact, which be
comes evident only if we turn our attention
from the sociology of art to intellectual histo
ry. I said that the theory of art-as-such was a
radical conceptual innovation of the eighteenth
century. That assertion is valid, so long as we
limit our purview to the basic concepts and
operative vocabulary within earlier theories of
the arts. But if we take a more comprehensive
historical overview, we find that the vantage
point, the defining concepts, and the distinc
tive vocabulary of art-as-such were actually
commonplaces ? indeed, they were very old and

familiar commonplaces; they had functioned,

however, not in the traditional philosophy and

criticism of the arts, but in alien realms of

metaphysics, and especially of theology These
ancient commonplaces were imported into, and
specialized for, the theory of fine art ?they

achieved, that is, a radical novelty of

application ? only when the new social role of

the various arts invited and fostered concepts


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of a requisite sort. It seems highly likely that,

if these concepts and terms had not existed

ready-made, modern aesthetics could not have

developed so quickly from its beginnings into
the complex, complete, and sophisticated form
of Kant's Critique of Judgment.

I have told this story at some length else

where, and have time only to present a few

highlights. The prototypical conception of an

object that evokes a selfless and absorbed con
templation is Plato's Idea of Ideas ?that ulti
mate essence, uniting Beauty, Goodness, and
Truth that Plato posited as the terminus of all

human love and desire. The ultimate

knowledge, and the supreme human value, Pla

to says, is "the contemplation with the eye of
the mind" of "beauty absolute, separate, sim
ple, and everlasting"?an entity which is "per
fect" because, possessing autarkeia, it is utterly
self-sufficient. Plotinus, following Plato, simi
larly endowed his Absolute with the attribute
of being "wholly self-sufficing," "self-closed," and

"autonomous." And in passages of high conse

quence for later Christian thought ?and if I am

right, also for modern aesthetics ?Plotinus

described the highest good of the human soul

to be "contemplation" of the essential Beauty
and Good which is a state of "perfect surrender"
of the self that constitutes "the soul's peace," with

"no passion, no outlooking desire. . .reasoning

is in abeyance and all Intellection and

even. . . the very self." The soul in this contem

plation "has in perfect stillness attained iso

By one of the strangest developments in in
tellectual history, this pagan concept of a self
sufficient Absolute Beauty, which is to be con
templated without reference either to the self
or to anything beyond its own bounds, became
thoroughly identified, early in Christian the
ology, with the God of the Old Testament, a
very personal God. He is described in the Bi
ble as creative, loving, just, and often very an

gry, but is never said to be beautiful or

self-sufficient or an impersonal essence or Ab

solute. It was St. Augustine who, in his emi

nently influential expositions of the nature of


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Christian cantas, or love, early in the fifth cen

tury, was more than anyone responsible for this

fusion of the Christian God and the classical

Absolute; and in doing so he promulgated the

lexicon of the categories and terms that, some
fourteen hundred years later, came to consti
tute the spectator's vantage and the contempla

tion model of the theory of art-as-such.

Augustine's controlling distinction is between

uti and frui, between loving something for its
use and loving something for pure enjoyment,
as an end in itself. All the good and beautiful
things in this world, he asserts, are to be loved
for their utility, as a means to something else.

Of all things in the universe, God, and God

alone, because He is the ultimate in beauty and

excellence, is to be loved with a pure enjoyment,

and in a visio Dei', that is, in a contemplation

of God by "the eye of the mind." And Augustine

details the loving contemplation of God's

supreme beauty and excellence in terms
familiar to us: He is enjoyed as His own end,

and non propter aliud, for His own sake (propter

se ipsam), simply for His inherent excellence

and, in Augustine's repeated term, gratis ? that

is, gratuitously, independently of our personal

interests or of any possible reward. Here are

all the elements of the theory of art-as-such; the

radical change is the shift of reference from God
to a beautiful work of art as the sufficient ob
ject of contemplative enjoyment, and not by the

eye of the mind but by the physical eye.

The crossing over of these theological terms,

especially "contemplation" and "disinterested,"

into aesthetic theory occurred, as I have indi
cated earlier, in 1711 in the book by the Earl
of Shaftesbury entitled Characteristics. The ex
press subject of Shaftesbury's urbane essays,

however, was not aesthetics or art ? his book has

been preempted by historians of aesthetics only

retrospectively?but religion, morals, and the

life-style appropriate to a gentleman. Shaftes
bury's ideal is the virtuoso ideal of connoisseur
ship, a mode of contemplation which (in his
Platonic way of thinking) applies equally to
God, to objects of beauty, and to moral good
ness. Shaftesbury's first published work had


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been a theological essay demonstrating that

God is to be loved not from a desire for per
sonal gain, nor as "a Mean, but [as] an End,"
and "for what he is in himself," in "his own Love

liness, Excellency, and Beauty." In his later

Characteristics, Shaftesbury imports the rest of

Augustine's vocabulary, which he applies

primarily to theology and morality, and secon

darily to the beauties of nature or of works of

I shall cite one German thinker, largely

neglected by historians of aesthetics, Karl

Philipp Moritz, who in 1785, five years before

Kant's Critique, published a short essay which
is the earliest unqualified presentation of the
view of art-as-such. The essay demonstrates
that, in little more than seventy years after
Shaftesbury, these distinctive theological and
moral terms have not only become specialized

to the arts, but are used to oppose the ex

perience of a work of art to religious and moral

experience, as well as to all practical concerns.

Only the mechanical or useful arts, Moritz says,

have an "outer end"?that is, an end "outside

themselves in something other." He poses in
stead a contemplation model for discussing the
fine arts:
In the contemplation [Betrachtung] of the
beautiful object... I contemplate it as some
thing which is completed, not in me, but in its
own self, which therefore constitutes a whole
in itself, and affords me pleasure for its own
sake [um sein selbst willen].

In adding to this formulation the further con

cepts of aesthetic disinterestedness and the self

sufficiency of a work of art, Moritz inadver

tently reveals the degree to which his views are

indebted to the ancient Plotinian and Augus

tinian representation of the selfless and gratu
itous contemplation of the ultimate beauty of


While the beautiful draws our attention ex

clusively to itself. . .we seem to lose ourselves
in the beautiful object; and precisely this loss,
this forgetfulness of self, is the highest degree

of pure and disinterested pleasure that beau


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ty grants us. In that moment we sacrifice our

individual confined being to a kind of higher

being. . . . Beauty in a work of art is not

pure. . .until I contemplate it as something

that has been brought forth entirely for its

own sake, in order that it should be some

thing complete in itself.

Kant must surely have studied Moritz's

writings ?there are many parallels I haven't
cited ?but he stripped away the patent indi
cators in Moritz of an origin in a Platonized
Christian theology. Other writers ofthat time,
however ?like a number of more recent propo
nents of art-as-such, from Flaubert and Clive

Bell through James Joyce and some of the

American New Critics ?manifest the tenden
cy of a contemplation theory of art to recuper

ate aspects of its original context in religious

devotion. Here is Wilhelm Wackenroder, for
example, writing in 1797, seven years after
Kant's Critique, on the experience of objects of
art-as-such; and explicitly, now, in what has

become their normative setting in a public


Art galleries. . .ought to be temples where,

in still and silent humility and in heart-lifting

solitude, we may admire great artists as the

highest among mortals. . .with long, stead
fast contemplation of their works. ... I com
pare the enjoyment of nobler works of art to
prayer. . . . Works of art, in their way, no more
fit into the common flow of life than does the

thought of God.... That day is for me a

sacred holiday which ... I devote to the con

templation of noble works of art.

Well, what does this excursion into social
and intellectual history come to?

The theory of art-as-such consists of asser

tions that have been claimed, or assumed, by

a number of philosophers and critics to be

timeless truths about a distinctive class of ar

tifacts. I have proposed, on the other hand, that

it is a way of talking about art that emerged

at a particular time, as an integral and

reciprocative element in an altering form of


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social life, marked by the development of many

new institutions to make highly diverse human

products widely public, and for no other os

tensible purpose than simply to be attended
to for their own sake. I have also proposed that

these changes were in part motivated by the

prestige of connoisseurship, and of a

nonutilitarian aesthetic culture, as a sign of

upper-class status; and furthermore, that the
determinative idiom and concepts of the new
theory were translocated into the realm of art,

ready-made, from the realm of a Platonized

Christian theology.
I do not, however, mean to assert that this
theory of art is, as a consequence, an invalid

theory. It describes the way that, in our present

circumstances, many of us in fact frequently

experience works of art. Furthermore, when
a theory of art is put to work in applied criti
cism, its provenience ceases to matter, and the
criterion of its validity becomes the profitabil
ity of what it proves capable of doing. (The
same holds for some of the profitable theories
in the natural sciences, which have also had
a strange, and even dubious, provenience.) In
criticism, the view of art-as-such has fostered
an unprecedented analysis of the complex ele
ments, internal relations, and modes of organi

zation of works of art that has undeniably

deepened and subtilized our experience of

them. This theory has also been held as their

working hypothesis by major modern artists,
including such literary masters as Flaubert,

Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov.

It is, then, in this heuristic and pragmatic
sense, a valid theory; but like all competing
views of art, it is also a partial theory. It is a
very profitable way of talking, when we want
to deal with a work of any of the arts simply
in its formal aspects and internal organization.

For some kinds of works, this way of talking

is relatively adequate. But if we turn to King

Lear, or Bach's St. Matthews Passion, or the fres

coes of Michelangelo (still, happily, in their

original situation in the Sistine Chapel) ?or
for that matter, to Byron's comic masterpiece,

Donju?n ? the view of art-as-such, while it re


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mains pertinent, becomes woefully inadequate.

We need to substitute a different perspective,
and a very different critical vocabulary, to be
gin to do justice to the diverse ends and func
tions of such works, and the patent way that
our responses to them involve our shared ex
periences, appeal to our convictions about the
world and our life in that world, implicate our

moral interests, and engage our deepest hu

man concerns.

M. H. Abrams is Class of 1916 Professor of English

Literature Emeritus at Cornell University.


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