The insistence on creating art for art’s sake may appear to be aimed at rich connoisseurs. But it originally expressed the frustration of artists with nouveau-riche consumers. In the early 19th century, artists had been, if not unacknowledged legislators, then high priests of a sacralized art — the replacement for transcendental ideals in a secularized society. Schiller produced a grand theology of the new aesthetic religion, claiming that art was essential to the growth of moral and rational faculties in human beings. Poet-prophets such as Lord Byron, Adam Mickiewicz, Victor Hugo and Sandor Petofi ambitiously imagined new political communities. Contrary to Auden’s belief, poetry made much happen, briefly at least.
But then liberation from royal and ecclesiastical patronage, and integration into a market society, turned out to be an ambiguous affair for many in the modern world’s first creative class. The new technologies of printing and mass journalism did make wealthy men out of some novelists, such as Dickens and Trollope. The audience for art grew among the rising middle classes. But the latter appeared to be fickle in their tastes, and largely “philistine” — an old word of German provenance that was frequently deployed in the 19th century. Many artists felt they were being forced into a demeaning balancing act: extracting money and applause from their new patrons — the bourgeoisie, who liked easy-listening and easy-reading — without compromising their creative freedom.