'Art for art's sake' is a much misunderstood phrase. In the public imagination it is invariably the oriflamme of Decadents and Aesthetes. It has become the boogeyman of an art loosed from the moorings of morality and devoid of meaning. The conventional wisdom has, in this sense, tended to echo the sentiments of George Sand in her letter to Alexandre Saint-Jean:
L'art pour l'art est un vain mot. L'art pour le vrai, l'art pour le beau et le bon, voilà la religion que je cherche.
This is an impoverished concept of art for its own sake, and a far cry from that which Gautier champions in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin. I do not pretend to analyze Gautier's intentions, and perhaps I here use his words to serve purposes other than those he had in mind; I claim only to offer an analysis which can rescue his slogan from Sand's dismissal. Let us begin with the beautiful:
Il n'y a de vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir à rien; tout ce qui est utile est laid, car c'est l'expression de quelque besoin, et ceux de l'homme sont ignobles et dégoûtants, comme sa pauvre et infirme nature.
Gautier's claim is Kant's categorical imperative applied to art. What is beautiful cannot be useful, because utility implies treatment as a means. Useful things are necessarily ugly because they are tinged with our ambitions-stamped with our own selfish desires. In warping the end product around the form of our intention, we lower art to our own level. Art made to a purpose is that very art which Plato sought to expel from his republic; it is a copy of a copy of the ideal-a mere reflection of the world which we inhabit. If we would have art be more than this, and fulfil Plotinus' dream of an art which is a truer copy of the plerom a than our own humble emanation, we must move aside and lift our shadow from art. The truly beautiful demands to be appreciated for itself, in recognition of the value of its mere existence. In this way it is like un to God, whose existence requires no external validation, because it is existence itself. Like God, art must be teleologically autonomous if it is to embody the principles which Sand seeks. Ironically, we undermine art's true value to us in trying to direct it according to our values.
Gautier presses the point by analogy:
À quoi sert la beauté des femmes? Pourvu qu'une femme soit médicalement bien conformée, en état de faire des enfants, elle sera toujours assez bonne pour des économistes.
Here we see past the vanities of the bourgeois, who se gaze is fixed upon the crass world of economized matter. Here is Gautier's bohemian, not the puerile champion of irresponsibility which the feckless bon vivants have sought to make of him, but an artist rallied to a noble standard. Let us not celebrate the beauty of the healthy and the fit, he cries, but rather that of the sick and the wasting-those whose existence is fraught with the tragic nobility of a worth unrecognized by the world. For such is art herself, a 'leper of the moon, magically diseased' (to borrow Mina Loy's phrase ) whose 'luminous sores' prompt the revulsion of the utility-minded bourgeois. We go to this leprous muse not to cleanse her, but to be cleansed; her pus is ambrosia to the enlightened.
Did Jesus not teach us that the last shall be first? Should we not, as artists, erect our temple on the cornerstone which the bourgeois builders rejected? Surely our mission here is to turn out the money-lenders, and strip away the ledger lines with which they have the painted the Earth. But this cannot be done by mortal agency, neither by an art shaped to the whims of fallen man. Only an art which is directly revelatory of Truth has such power. We pursue art as a means to Truth, freed from the strictures of our limited knowledge and feeble reason. Our only access to Truth is, by Keats' equation, through Beauty. Beauty alone is recognized intuitively; it requires and permits no debate. It is the moment in which man comes closest to God.
But Gautier must now reverse himself, not by way of correcting an error, but in order at last to initiate his reader into a higher order of esoteric doctrine:
Je sais qu'il y en a qui préfèrent les moulins aux églises, et le pain du corps à celui de l'âme. À ceux-là, je n'ai rien à leur dire. Ils méritent d'être économistes dans ce monde, et aussi dans l'autre. [...] Moi, n'en déplaise à ces messieurs, je suis de ceux pour qui le superflu est le nécessaire [...]
Man has need of God, and this need is not ignoble. Gautier gives here as the unique nature of the artist what is, in fact, simply human nature. We all need art lest we become as the animals and return, like them, to the dust. It is in art that we answer the Psalmist; God is mindful of us because we are seekers after Truth, which we can approach with surety only by means of the beautiful. The artist is distinguished not by being "one of those" for whom the superfluous is necessary, but by knowing that he is "one of those", as are all men and women. It is because we need Beauty and Truth that we need art, an art untrammelled by subjugation to our needs. The faith which Gautier offers under the banner of 'art for art's sake' is precisely that faith which Sand demands, and describes in her letter to A.M. Desplanches:
La foi est une surexcitation, un enthousiasme, un état de grandeur intellectuelle qu'il faut garder en soi comme un trésor et ne pas le répandre sur les chemins en petite monnaie de cuivre, en vaines paroles, en raisonnements inexacts et pédantesques.
Let us then hold art above these things, and ask nothing of it. Such is its beneficence. Like the rain, which falls upon the just and the unjust, art takes no heed of us. Its gifts are showered upon us not out of deference to our nature, but in fulfillment of its own. Art is an avenue to God, who knows our needs far better than we can articulate them, and it is only without asking that we shall receive.