Johnson’s book is an introduction to the concept of Aestheticism, which from the opening paragraph he states ‘means, broadly, a devotion to beauty’.[1] A particularly nineteenth century term, Aestheticism is more than just a type of art or a view of beauty, it is a way of living. Johnson recognises Europe, France and England predominantly, as the centre of Aestheticism, but acknowledges that if one were to include Poe, then we have to acknowledge it was also an American phenomenon. His main claim, which is certainly in keeping with Wilde’s is that Aestheticism stresses a continuity, in England, between English Romanticism and aestheticism. It is worth nothing that Johnson doesn’t capitalise aestheticism, as Prettejohn does in the introduction to After the Pre-Raphaelites (1997) when she is ‘denoting developments in Victorian art’.[2]

Johnson describes aestheticism as a tendency, rather than a movement, and Prettejohn is in some ways more aligned with this thinking, and is certainly equally uncomfortable about the concept of a movement. Unravelling aestheticism (large A or not) is or rather continues to be problematic. This is, as far as I can see and as Johnson seems to suggest, primarily because ‘Beauty’ is itself open to ‘futile circumlocution’ and because the nineteenth century was doing something particular with its application and understanding of the term.

Keats said ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ but, asks Johnson, what did he mean?[3] Philosophers, poets, writers and artists have attempted to understand or offer explanations about what constitutes beauty, but one particular text, which occurs in most books on Aestheticism, is Pater’s The Renaissance (1873) offers the following:

Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness. To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that [vii/viii] special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.[4]

Pater sees beauty as something immediately experienced, something felt, and it is this feeling, sensuous use of the term which Johnson utilises throughout the text.

Johnson raises a complication: that of the understanding of ‘Aesthetic’ (or esthetic), as in aesthetic experience. Furthermore, ‘aesthetic’ is sometimes used as a noun, e.g. when describing Hegel’s philosophy of beauty. ‘Aesthetics is the study of questions like: what is beauty?…What do the different arts have in common. These, then are aesthetic questions. But ‘aesthetic here has a meaning quite distinct from ‘aesthetic’ when it refers to the subject’ of Johnson’s study.[5] Aestheticism, as concerning Johnson’s study, relates to a particular set of convictions ‘about art and beauty and their place in life’.[6] This seems an obvious distinction once made, but the term, and the objects labelled to be such, are often shades of each other.

Art for Art’s sake is one example of the type of ambiguity we uncover when discussing Aestheticism (my capitalisation, for ease). In order to better understand the term and what it captures, or what works of art it pertains to, we need to consider the phrase in the light of the ‘relevant contemporary conditions’.[7] Johnson notes that some may object to the term itself, suggesting it is ‘an abstraction masquerading as a concrete entity’ and indeed, there were no clear boundaries, owners, manifestos, or the like even in its own time (unlike the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which at the beginning, at least, contained a certain number of people attempting certain activities within their art). However, over simplification is also problematic, and attempts at reification often lose the subtleties and individuals within complex historical timeframes. Use of the term at least permits a starting point, a denotation of ‘alignments and antagonisms formed among individuals and operating as observable forces in society and producing observable effects’.[8]

At some point we cannot retain neutrality. Johnson’s declares his own view: aestheticism ‘must lead to an ingrown selfishness in life and – especially perhaps in literature – to triviality in art’.[9] I couldn’t agree more. Oscar Wilde is a case in point, for me.

Art plays its role in the total economy of the human spirit;  when aesthetic interests completely take over the economy, the result, as far as I can see, must be, at best, a grave limitation of personality and, at worst, a sterile, self-defeating quest for kicks.[10] Johnson is a refreshingly straight talker.

Aspects of Aestheticism

The man we most think of in relation to Aestheticism, is Wilde. ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ only becomes meaningful if we can answer ‘What is Art?’[11] ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ as a formula meant something to those who proclaimed it and to those who denounced it.[12] For Ruskin ‘beauty, for him, is an indispensable value – to appreciate it is essential for the good life’. Wilde borrowed uninhibitedly from Ruskin. In Johnson’s view, including the two men as part of a definition of aestheticism, makes the term nebulous. The elevation of beauty is telling. Johnson breaks it down into three parts:

  • A view of art
  • A view of life
  • A practical tendency in literature and the arts.

A view of art is to separate art from morality, therefore there is no moral imperative, ‘delight alone’.[13] Pater suggests art is ‘to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass’.[14] There are various views on where form begins and matter ends. Pater and Swinburne have different views, and they even differ from themselves. But how can we separate form and matter when we read a poem for example? Pater says form and matter are indistinguishable, and that ‘aspires to the condition of music (the famous phrase from Pater’s The School of Giorgione). Music is pure form already, compared to others. Swinburne wrote about matter and form as if they were distinct entities.

Clive Bell says literature is impure art, because unlike music, it is dependent on ideas – so does not aspire to Pater’s ideal ‘condition of music’. Meaning can be diluted until ‘we are no longer sharply conscious of it’.[15] In fact, Pater’s position actively discoursed political thinking (in literature etc.) so as Frank Lloyd Wright later said ‘Art for Art’s Sake is Art for the Well fed’.

Art as a View of Life

Taking life ‘in the spirit of art’, we must cultivate our power of introspection’.[16] Criticism of Aestheticism, and a view Johnson holds, is that it leads to selfishness. The Protestant Ethic of life being a battle (exemplified by Bunyan), was generally accepted in largely Nonconformist middle-class homes; it was increasingly the middle-class that were setting the public tone of Victorian society. The aesthetic of life view involved detachment – a call to treat life, not as a battle, but as a spectacle. To quote de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam: “Live? Our servants will do that for us.”

Aesthetes even spectate on their own emotions – thus Johnsons says aestheticism is contemplative, not active. ‘We are all under the sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve’.[17] How then should we made the most of it? Truth is unattainable for Pater and it is ‘not the fruit of experience but experience itself is the end’. This is circumlocutory, we avoid politics, the battle of life, dirt and grime, we instead are left with the possibility of retreating from reality. In this way Pater is suggesting it is possible to become pre-occupied with the means of living, to the neglect of living itself. A classic example of this is Des Esseintes.

Elsewhere, Pater pleads ‘for a morality of sympathy’. Like Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, Pater deplores ‘machinery’ as he sees it as deferring personal fulfilment. This line of thinking is in sympathy with Carlyle, as well as Arnold.

Aestheticism as a Tendency

Johnson warns the reader, that we can’t just assume people who exhibited aesthetic traits in their art were committed to aestheticism. He uses Tennyson’s Lotos Eateres as an example.This poem demonstrates a purely musical impulse and is located in religious anxieties of Tennyson’s early writing, but this does not make it an aesthetic poem. There are further examples which fit with Prettejohn’s later (1997) theory of ‘double distancing’, e.g  Morris’s ‘The Life and Death of Jason’ which is a classical legend rewritten in a quasi Chaucerian style. Likewise, Rossetti creates a heaven which is neither Christian nor Pagan in his The Blessed Damozel (1875-81, Lady Lever). Freer expression was one central motif behind the plea of art for art’s sake. One essay of particular interest on this is Appreciations by Pater (1889).

The essay The Critic as Artist by Wilde (1890) argues the critic need only regard the work as a stimulus to fantasy – good criticism is good art in its own right. Pater’s interpretation of art (e.g. Botticelli) is designed not to say whether it is good or bad, but just to interpret it. Aesthetic criticism therefore is ‘appreciate’ rather than evaluative’.[18]

If criticism is an art, and if all art is neither good nor bad, how do we then separate the wheat from the chaff? Aestheticism wants art to affect us – that is its key aim or means of being evaluated as art. But surely, this limits the number of works which are likely to be considered as works of art? Arnold says poetry is destined to encroach on the traditional role of religion in fostering ideals, and perhaps this offers a way out of this dead-end.[19]

Interestingly, Pater even disagrees with himself in some ways, when he departs from this idea of art being neither good nor bad, and in his essay Style (in Appreciations, 1889) delineates between ‘good’ and ‘great’ art.

The Victorians saw Aestheticism as originating in the Romantic period. Aesthetic symptoms occur earlier than we may think, as far back as 1831 Arthur Hallam said that the poet should concern itself with ‘the desire of beauty’. Hallam’s view looked forward to Poe, Baudelaire and Swinburne. Pater, Swinburne, and Rossetti exemplify individualism and taste and sentiment, a disregard of sentiments that had pervaded from Wordsworth onwards. Wilde particularly loved Keats (he mentions him in his famous lecture The English Renaissance of Art) and describes him as ‘the pure and serene artist’, and Swinburne loved Shelley. Johnson says the artist as someone who worked in any of the creative arts was a nineteenth century invention, born out of this thinking.[20]

Bohemian was another word which acquired a new sense in the 19th century. Arnold called the middle-class ‘the Philistines’ and his poem ‘The Sirens’ seems to call of the enjoyment of the here and now, as did Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a text popular with the Pre-Raphaelites). Arnold, Pater, and Wilde, were an unlikely union although there were similarities in their thinking and writing. Poetry is an important mechanism for understanding aestheticism

When turning his attention to Pre-Raphaelitism, the forerunner of aestheticism, Johnson describes aestheticism as a ‘broad tendency’ rather than a movement.[21] He goes on to discuss beauty and melancholy, and the fact they were a fairly constant pairing since the poetry of Keats. Poetry is an aesthetic moment, and poets like Poe called for the ‘Heresy of the Didactic’. For Poe truth and poetry were incompatible, as was fact and logic. No amount of Poe’s poetry (imagery, excitement etc.) could make up for deficiency in absolute effect. Poe’s ideals foreshadow the aesthetes, as does his musical view of words, e.g. his use of the word ‘nevermore’ in ‘The Raven’ and Keats’ use of the word ‘forlorn’.

Johnson sees Swinburne’s pure form poetry as one type of aestheticism, and Pater’s contemplative aestheticism as a second version, both appearing at the same time. The School of Giorgione says ‘the more difficult it is to separate matter and form, the better the art’ (like music, and his contention that all art aspires to the condition of music). As Pater ages, he becomes less forthright in his view of morality and art. In Measure for Measure (1874) he acknowledges art, even if unintentionally, may still have moral import’.[22] Pater even become more sympathetic to Christianity. Wilde was more of a purist, and continued to insist that art could be neither good nor bad, saying it was all driven by form (in line with Poe). One difference between Pater and Wilde was that Pater saw splendour of experience in its brevity, whereas Wilde just saw life’s banality. The forms and thinking on aestheticism were then, as now, ambiguous, changeable, hard to pin down. They were subject to revision and even those who were considered as belonging to that group of people, were often in disagreement. One useful way of thinking about aestheticism though is in Johnson’s conclusion that there are two forms of aestheticism:

The Romantic – this form stresses self-expression.

Parnassian – stresses the work of art itself.

[1] R.V. Johnson, Aestheticism The Critical Idiom (London: Methuen and Co., 1969), p. 1

[2] Elizabeth Prettejohn, After the Pre-Raphaelites Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 4

[3] Johnson, Aestheticism The Critical Idiom, p. 3

[4] This is also a quote used by Prettejohn in the aforementioned text, After the Pre-Raphaelites.

[5] Johnson, p. 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Johnson, p. 5

[8] Johnson, p. 6.

[9] Johnson, p. 7.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Johnson, p. 9.

[12] Johnson, p. 10.

[13] Johnson, p. 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Johnson, p. 17.

[16] Johnson, p. 19.

[17] Johnson, p. 21

[18] Johnson, p. 33

[19] Johnson, p. 33.

[20] Johnson, p. 37.

[21] Johnson, p. 43.

[22] Johnson, p. 70.

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