A sensibility, a philosophy of life and of art, and an English literary and artistic movement culminating in the 1890s, with Oscar Wilde as its most extravagant exponent and Walter Pater its acknowledged philosopher.
Other names commonly associated are those of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Swinburne, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Andrew Lang, William Sharp, John Addington Symonds, and the early Yeats. Aubrey Beardsley and J. McNeill Whistler are representative of the same trend in the fine arts.
For the Aesthete whose creed is to be derived from Pater’s conclusion to The Renaissance (1873), reality amounts to sharp, fleeting impressions, images and sensations arrested by the creative individual from an experience in constant flux. The life of art, or the art of life, which the Aesthete wishes to equate, is ideally a form of purified ecstasy that flourishes only when removed from the roughness of the stereotyped world of actuality and the orthodoxy of philosophical systems and fixed points of view. The quest for unadulterated beauty is recommended as the finest occupation individuals can find for themselves during the ‘indefinite reprieve’ from the death which their lives are. Pater’s phrase, ‘the love of art for its own sake’, a version of the French l’art pour l’art, has served the Aesthetes as a slogan, implying the repudiation of the ‘heresy of instruction’. As a fashionable fad, English Aestheticism was brought to a halt with the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1896.
Aestheticism, as a stage in the development of Romanticism, is not limited to England. Profoundly a movement of reaction and protest, it reflects the growing apprehension of the nineteenth-century artist at the vulgarization of values and commercialization of art accompanying the rise of the middle class and the spread of democracy (‘a new class, who discovered the cheap and foresaw fortune in the fracture of the sham’- Whistler). The hostility of an alienated minority towards bourgeois ‘Religion of Progress’ (‘Industry and Progress,’ Baudelaire wrote, ‘those despotic enemies of all poetry’) prompted an indulgence in the decadent, the archaic and the morbid. The Death of God, as proclaimed by Nietzsche among others, turned the Aesthete towards the occult and the transcendental in an attempt to make a thoroughly spiritualized art substitute for the old faith. The fin-de-siècle witnesses the proclamation of an elitist ‘new hedonism’ determined, in the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience’.
Philosophy provides the theoretical mainstay of the prevalent moods. Kant’s postulate (Critique of Judgement, 1790) of the disinterestedness of the aesthetical judgement, and the irrelevance of concepts to the intuitions of the imagination, is taken up and carried further by Schopenhauer. In the latter’s thought, an “absolute’ Art removes the mind from a despicable life and frees it from its bondage to the will. Since music is the most immaterial art, as well as the most removed from quotidian reality, it becomes the ideal. Schopenhauer declares that ‘to become like music is the aspiration of all arts’, which is echoed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), by Verlaine in ‘de la musique avant toute chose’, and by Pater in his equally famous ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ (The Renaissance, 1873). The ensuing cult of pure or ‘essential’ form is as characteristic of symbolism and literary Impressionism as it is of the entire English 1890s. This, in turn, leads to the devaluation of the subject matter in favour of personal, innovatory techniques and the subtleties of exquisite execution.
Popular Aestheticism Books:
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Art for Art’s Sake by Elizabeth Prettejohn
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh