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Thread: What exactly is aestheticism?

  1. #1
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    Nov 2011

    What exactly is aestheticism?

    I've been reading a collection of Oscar Wilde short stories, which is the first Wilde I've ever read, and was surprised by how many of them critiqued inequality, because I know Wilde was associated with aestheticism, which I'd heard described as a movement which rejected the Victorian idea that literature should teach or impart moral lessons or be socially engaged.

    So what explains this apparent contradiction? Did I misunderstand what aestheticism was about?

  2. #2
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Jan 2007
    Eugene, OR
    Aestheticism referred to the notion that the pursuit of beauty was the appropriate goal of art. Wilde (I think -- I'm not an expert, but I've read his stories) thought that Christian love ("agape") was intensely beautiful His children's stories ("The Happy Prince" "The Selfish Giant") seem to decry the poverty of society, but their loveliness is in the demonstration of agape.

  3. #3
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Feb 2007
    Victorian England was plagued by moralism, in a similar sense to how the 21st century is obsessed with moral purification. Matthew Arnold etc. were champions of this sort of approach. In the end, the artistic community -- one that has its roots fundamentally in late 18th, early 19th century Romanticism -- worked to push back against this trend. Wilde is interesting in that he was more or less famous for mocking the morals of his society, until, as to be expected, his own life was put under the microscope and he was condemned. The aestheticism generally refers to a notion that the artist, based on convention of the tradition can display his art, divorced of its moral sensibilities, can be evaluated on the terms of the tradition in how he performs within its conventions. As you put it, Ecurb, generally speaking we are told by Wilde to measure Wilde on how his stories perform as somewhat Christian moral texts -- the performance of the virtue in the way they convey the message -- rather than necessarily how virtuous their author was, or specifically how morally instructing/influential the lessons were.

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