Do you have faith in the ratings of Rotten Tomatoes when you are deciding whether to watch a movie or not? Or do you prefer to check how the movie performs according to users of IMDB? Either way, you are using them as markers of taste. This means that you depend on them to tell you whether a movie is good or not. But what about works of literature? Well, leave it to the pioneers of aestheticism to tell you whether the literary text is worthwhile or not.
Let's look at the definition of aestheticism and discuss the main ideas of the movement.
Aestheticism refers to an art movement that peaked in England in the late 1800s wherein the beauty and holistic experience evoked by a work of art is prized above all else.
The late 1800s, otherwise known as the Victorian Age after its reigning monarch Queen Victoria, were marked by a strict moral code and restrictions imposed by society upon individuals hailing from all classes. Victorian art, and particularly Victorian literature, were judged based on their didactic value. This means that if a work of art taught or reinforced certain moral or ethical values, it was considered 'good.'
Contrary to the principles of Victorian art, aestheticism believed in 'art for art's sake.' This meant that aestheticists believed that art was not supposed to fulfil a higher purpose of aligning with certain ideals or teaching values to the viewer or reader. Instead, art is expected to exist independently of morals and evaluated purely on its aesthetic beauty.
Aestheticism in English literature
Aestheticism is an art movement that influenced all artistic spheres including sculpture, painting, architecture, music, and literature. Aestheticism in literature marked a departure from Victorian literature. Victorian literature aimed at fulfilling a purpose such as teaching values and morals. Aestheticism as a literary movement used beauty or the experience of beauty to evaluate literary texts. The key figures of aestheticism in literature include Oscar Wilde, Walter Horatio Pate, and A. C. Swinburne.
Aestheticism: key figures, examples, and books
This section will dive into the above-mentioned key figures of aestheticism and their seminal works.
Oscar Wilde was an author, poet, and playwright who wrote several poems and plays including The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), The Ballad of the Reading Gaol (1898) and Poems (1881). However, it is Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), that is associated with aestheticism.
In the novel, the titular character Dorian Gray, realises to his great horror that his ethereal beauty and youth will slowly fade as he grows older. He makes a Faustian declaration that it would be his portrait, painted by his friend Basil Hallward, that will grow older in his stead, and that he remains young and beautiful for eternity.
His wish now granted, Gray leads a life of debauchery and sin, and breaks the heart of his betrothed, who ends her life. It is then that Gray realises that not only does his portrait grow older in his stead, but it takes on a cruel, ugly appearance with each sin he commits.
Eventually, driven mad by the life he has led and the harm he has brought to others, Gray stabs his portrait. The portrait is restored to its original state while Gray's servants find the body of an old man who is beyond recognition save for Gray's rings on his finger.
The term 'Faustian' comes from a German legend based on the figure of Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480 – 1540). Faustian refers to when an individual sacrifices moral or spiritual values to gain material wealth, power or knowledge.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the titular character is in pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and prizes beauty, especially his own, above all else. The portrait serves as a stand in for art as seen in aestheticism, i.e. eternally frozen in beauty. The Faustian deal he makes, therefore, can be seen as a corruption of art by pitting it with morality.
The portrait becomes steadily uglier and horrifies Dorian to the point where he commits murder. Towards the end, when he attempts to repent for his sins, the persistent ugliness of the portrait is what reminds him that his penance too, is of a selfish nature, as he wishes for the portrait to be restored to its original state rather than actually feel sorry for the terrible things he has done.
Also, in the preface of the novel, Oscar Wilde discusses 'art for art's sake' in the sense that art does not fulfil a higher purpose. It is just there to be sensually perceived by the viewer.
Hedonism refers to a lifestyle wherein pursuit of sensory pleasure is the ultimate goal.
Walter Horatio Pater
Walter Horatio Pater was an essayist and philosopher who believed firmly in the principles of aestheticism. He published his first collection of essays in 1873 titled The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. In this work, he laid out the foundations of aesthetic ideals and also challenged Christian beliefs. He explained the notion of 'art for art's sake' that was synonymous with the movement of aestheticism.
Pater published the novel Marius the Epicurean in 1885. The novel follows the titular character Marius, who meets a boy named Flavius, whose pursuit of hedonistic pleasure and influence introduces Marius to the pleasure of reading literary texts.
Flavius grows ill and is tended to by Marius till his death. Afterwards, as a young man, Marius follows the philosophy of Epicureanism, and begins to live in Rome as an aide of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius is a stoic and as Marius spends more time in Rome, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with Rome as well as the philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism.
Epicureanism refers to a philosophy the followers of which believe in leading a materialistic lifestyle to attain pleasure. The attainment of pleasure is the absolute goal of epicureans.
Stoicism, as a philosophy, can be seen as the opposite of Epicureanism. Stoics believe in rationality and in leading a life that abides by a strict code of morals.
Towards the end of the novel, Marius, whose capture led to his illness of which he is dying, is cared for by Christians, who believe Marius to be one of their own. Pater reveals that although he was never formally indoctrinated, Marius' heart is naturally Christian.
In Marius the Epicurean, the competing philosophies and ideals include Epicureanism, which lays great emphasis on hedonistic pleasure similar to one pursued by Dorian Gray. Pleasure through experiences with beautiful things and beautiful people is an important aspect of Marius' journey.
Algernon Charles Swinburne
Algernon Charles Swinburne is a poet and novelist who is associated with the movement of aestheticism. Although born into a Christian family, Swinburne rejected his Christian upbringing and embraced the then radical ideals of aestheticism. His seminal work, Poems and Ballads was published in 1866 to immense controversy and debate.
The work addresses numerous issues that were taboo in the Victorian society including homosexuality, sado-masochism, and sexuality in general. Poems in this collection include 'Sapphics,' 'The Triumph of Time,' and 'The Garden of Persephone.'
The movement of aestheticism influenced other literary and artistic movements as well as schools of art. These include the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the movement of Decadence and the symbolists.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood includes a group of artists that laid great emphasis on mimesis and imitation of nature, which was a key aspect of the work. A famous Pre-Raphaelite is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the brother of Christina Rossetti.
The Decadent movement is a literary movement characterised by excess and caricatures of the human condition. Works of decadence express self-disgust and scepticism. Oscar Wilde is associated with the Decadent movement because of the expression of self-disgust and scepticism of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Symbolism refers to a literary movement wherein artistic expression is achieved through symbols, elaborate metaphors, and imagery.
Aestheticism - Key takeaways
- Aestheticism is an art movement wherein the beauty and holistic experience evoked by a work of art is prized above all else.
- Key figures of aestheticism in literature include Oscar Wilde, Walter Horatio Pater, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.
- Aestheticism rejects the strict code of morals imposed by Victorian society.
- Aestheticism influenced the movements of Decadence, Symbolism, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is an important text in the movement of Aestheticism.