The Autonomy of Literature at the Fins De Siecles (1900 and 2000): A Critical Assessment

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The autonomy of the arts and literature is a central issue in the current debate on the 'crisis' in contemporary culture. In this debate, the tension between two conceptions of art - conceived as autotelic, or as serving social, ethical, ideological or commercial ends - plays a key role. For literature, two periods are particularly interesting in this respect: the period around 1900, and the turn of the millennium. The former is considered to witness the consecration of the autonomy of the arts with respect to morality or social utility, and of its prestige as 'high art', against the background of compelling countermovements, such as the Arts and crafts movements or socialist art. The second period, on the other hand, has been analysed as displaying, in post-modern Western cultures, an opposite tendency towards deautonomization. 'High' literature and art are deemed to have lost their ideological and moral autonomy, their aesthetic superiority, and their independence with respect to commercial interests. The essays in this volume investigate these often strategic claims and conceptions, taking into account the social, political and institutional contexts in which they are articulated. To analyse the issue of the autonomy of literature offers incisive insights into conflicting standpoints about the function of literature in society, revealing its connection to law, social responsibility, gender, and political, national and religious identities. Combining in an often innovative way institutional, historical and hermeneutical approaches, the collected essays intend to shed new light on the historical and national specifics of the debate about the function of literature.