Aestheticism (Aesthetic Movement)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Aestheticism (Aesthetic Movement)

Aestheticism (Aesthetic Movement): A movement that developed in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and whose proponents insisted on the separation of art from morality, maintaining that art need not be moral to have value. L’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) was the rallying cry for writers who valued art for its inherent aesthetic quality rather than for its didactic potential.

Literary influences on the movement included French writer Théophile Gautier, who asserted in his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) that art has no utilitarian value; American writer Edgar Allan Poe, who developed a theory of the supremacy of the “poem per se” in an essay entitled “The Poetic Principle” (1850); and the English Pre-Raphaelites, whose poems (like Pre-Raphaelite paintings) emphasized sensuous detail. Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, J. K. Huysmans, and Stéphane Mallarmé French writers who were early leaders of the Aesthetic Movement, promoted the idea that art is the supreme human endeavor. In England, the work of painters and illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, and James McNeill Whistler complemented the writings of Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, and, especially, Oscar Wilde. The Parnassians, a group of French and English poets who strove to write objective poetry that exalted form and minimized authorial presence, also played a significant, if lesser known, role in Aestheticism.

FURTHER EXAMPLE: Wilde’s The Decay of Lying (1889) expresses some of the attitudes of Aestheticism through a character named Cyril, who at one point remarks:

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its own time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.