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Aestheticism

Ruth Livesey

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online March 2011 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0002
Aestheticism

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Aestheticism can be defined broadly as the elevation of taste and the pursuit of beauty as chief principles in art and in life. In the context of British literature there is considerable controversy about when and where aestheticism occurs; but a line can be traced from the art criticism of John Ruskin in the 1850s, through the artists and writers of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the writings of Walter Pater, to the works of Oscar Wilde and the flowering of decadent poetry of the 1890s. The movement drew upon the formula of “l’art pour l’art”—art for art’s sake—articulated most memorably by the French novelist Théophile Gautier in his 1836 preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin. Gautier was one of a number of French writers and artists of the period who argued that art should be evaluated with reference to its own criteria. In aestheticism the subjective view of beauty becomes the primary means of judging value: when considering whether a poem or a painting is good, aestheticism merely asks if it is beautiful or meaningful as a work of art in itself. This forms a stark contrast to the long-standing custom of judging art and literature either on the basis of the moral lessons it might teach to readers or viewers (its social usefulness) or in terms of its correspondence to real life (its realism). It is this refusal to acknowledge the primacy of morality within art that made aestheticism such a controversial movement from the mid 19th century onward: its proponents were the subjects of vituperative attacks from mainstream writers and critics and were consistently satirized throughout this period. The category of aestheticism is a notoriously slippery one and can overlap with and encompass the categories of Pre-Raphaelitism, decadence, symbolism, and early modernism. The section Defining Aestheticism thus aims to orient readers in this controversy before moving on to examine the many spheres in which studies in aestheticism have expanded at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries: from the improvement of life of the urban working classes to the literary modernism that so strenuously disavowed its debt to the aestheticism of the 1880s and 1890s.

Article.  12640 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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