In the late nineteenth century, we find art beginning to be discussed by certain critics and art historians largely in formal terms which effectively removed the question of meaning and purpose from consideration. From then on, art was to be discussed in terms of style – color, line, shape, space, composition conveniently ignoring or playing down whatever social, political, progressive statements the artist had hoped to make in his or her work. This approach became pervasive to the extent that artists, too, certainly the weaker ones and even some of the strong ones, lost sight of the purpose of progressive art and became absorbed into this formalist way of thinking about art.
The defence of this attitude was that as the function of art is to preserve and enhance the values and sensibilities of civilized human beings, it should attempt to remain aloof from the malignant influences of an increasingly cross and dehumanizing technological culture. Eventually there emerged the notion that modernist art is practiced entirely within a closed formalist sphere, necessarily separated from, so as not to be contaminated by the real world.
In this context David Walsh discussion about the immediate background seems relevant. According to him society was the cause of the generation of this line of thought. Between 1837 and 1901 England went through a rapid change in society. Industrialization resulted in an affluent middle class and growing poverty as farm workers were forced to the cities. Scientific discoveries were challenging traditional religious beliefs. By the end of the age, man was little more than a natural accident.
Responding to the market writers of the time focused on moral and social problems of industrialization. Religion had lost its light so writers took up the role of moral guides. The duty of art to control man’s life had become a responsibility of the author. Consequently censorship was becoming a nuisance, as art could not present anything which did not conform to social norms. Conformity eas praised, all deviations punished.
Rejecting the didactic view the Aesthetics declared their philosophy of Art for Art’s Sake. They demanded that art is not duty-bound to society to deliver instructions. The artist was the artist, not a prophet. And art was art. Truth was to be presented, as long as the aesthetic possibilities were exploited. Oscar Wilde was one of the most vocal members of this movement. The Aesthetics were ultimately fighting against the laissez-faire capitalism and the ugliness it created through stark class-division.
However, through the excess that every movement brings, the work of art came to be seen as an isolated phenomenon, governed not by human impulse so much as by the mysterious laws of stylistic development. Art and Painting and sculpture stood separate from the materialistic world and the mundane affairs of ordinary people. The underlying assumption was the finer things of humanity can be presented through a purely visual understanding and mode of expression. This purely visual characteristic of art makes it an autonomous sphere of activity, completely separate from the everyday world of social and political life. The autonomous nature of visual art means that questions asked of it may only be properly put, and answered, in its own terms. According to this approach, the importance of a work of art rests largely on the degree to which it derives from or sums up or challenges, earlier stylistic developments and the extent to which it lays the stylistic foundations for the next step, artist or period.
Art is a peculiar form of human activity. It is not merely a packaging of political or moral messages. Art is created simply through the aesthetic expressions of the author. As the author is not independent of his background, the creation cannot be so too. Art can liberate, it can limit, but it cannot be bound into political or philosophical formulae.