Is there a notion less American than “art for art’s sake”? When we invoke the doctrine, we usually mean the exact opposite. In nine cases out of ten, when an American speaks of the essential role of art he means that it can be made to do something useful. The nineteenth century, with its didactic tableaux, esteemed art as an instrument of moral instruction. The twentieth century mocked this attitude, even as it justified its own artistic products for their “consciousness-raising” properties. In either case, art is justified by what it does, rather than what it is.

Perhaps this is inevitable in a culture with an inherited Puritan ambivalence about the frank acceptance of pleasure, aesthetic or otherwise. And the doctrine of art for art’s sake is nothing if not a doctrine of pleasure. All it asks of art is that it arouse in us a sensation of palpable pleasure: by its tactile and physical properties, by...


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