Aestheticism – Definition and Meaning

Aestheticism, or the Aesthetic Movement, was a European phenomenon during the latter nineteenth century that had its chief headquarters in France, In opposition to the dominance of scientific thinking, and in difference of the industrial indifference or hostility of the society of their time to products precisely because it is self-sufficient, and has no use or moral aim outside its own being. The end of a work of art is simply to exist in its formal perfection; that is, be beautiful, and to be contemplated as an end in itself. A rallying cry of Aestheticism became the phrase “I’art pour l’art”-art for art’s sake.

The historical roots of aestheticism are in the views proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (1790) that the “pure” aesthetic experience consists of a “disinterested” contemplation of an object that “pleases for its own sake”, without reference to reality or to the “external” ends of utility or morality. As a self-conscious movement, however, French aestheticism is often said to date from Theophile Gautier’s witty defense of his assertion that art is useless (Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1835). Aestheticism was developed by Baudelaire, who was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s claim (in “The Poetic Principle”, 1850) that the supreme work is a “poem per se”, a “poem written solely for the poem’s sake”; it was later taken up by Flaubert, Mallarme, and many other writers. In its extreme form, the aesthetic doctrine of art for art’s sake veered into the moral and quasi-religious doctrine of life for art’s sake, with the artist represented as a priest who renounces the practical and self- profiting canons of ordinary existence in the service of what Flaubert and others called “the religion of beauty”.

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The views of French Aestheticism were introduced into Victorian England by Walter Pater, with his emphasis on high artifice and stylistic subtlety, his recommendation to crowd one’s life with the maximum of exquisite sensations, and his precept of the supreme value of beauty and of “the love of art for its own sake”. The artistic and moral views of Aestheticism are also expressed by Algernon Charles Swinburne, and by English writers of the 1890s such as Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Johnson. The influence of some central ideas stressed in Aestheticism-especially the view of the “autonomy” (self-sufficiency) of a work of art, the emphasis on craft and artistry, and the concept of a poem or novel as an end in itself whose values are “intrinsic”—has been important in the writings of prominent recent authors such as W. B. Yeats, T. E. Hulme, and T. S. Eliot, as well as in the literary theory of the New Critics.

For related developments, see decadence and ivory tower, Refer to: William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (1945, reprinted 1975); Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957); Enid Starkie, From Gautier to Eliot (1960); R. V. Johnson, Aestheticism (1969); and for the intellectual and social conditions of the emergence of aesthetic theory, M. H. Abrams, “Art-as-such : The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics”, in Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical theory (1989). Useful collections of writings in the Aesthetic Movement are Ian Small, ed., The Aesthetes: A Sourcebook (1979). And Eric Warner and Graham Hough, eds., Strangeness and Beauty.



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