Aestheticism Then and Now - How Shallow and Pretty is Art Today?

December 6, 2015

When the term aestheticism is mentioned, the first historic period that comes to mind is the 19th century. And, it’s quite normal, since the aestheticism, or aesthetic movement as it is also known, was quite prominent in the second half of the 19th century. However, aestheticism is more than a simple art movement. It is also an intellectual movement that supports the emphasis on aesthetic values more than social-political themes for literature, fine art, music and other arts, including visual art. Although it emerged more than 150 years ago, it’s still active today, and very powerful too. Every time when an art movement that rejects pure aesthetical approach towards art emerges, supporters of aestheticism raise their voices, questioning the quality of such art. So, aestheticism is not some art movement that existed in history and disappeared – it’s still alive.

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What is Aestheticism ?

According to its definition, aestheticism is a late 19th-century European arts movement which centred on the doctrine that art exists for the sake of its beauty alone, and that it needs to serve no political, didactic, or other purpose. The movement began as a reaction to prevailing utilitarian social philosophies and to what was perceived as the ugliness and philistinism of the industrial age. So, aestheticism is more an intellectual movement dealing with art than a unified art movement. There was no unified or organized movement as such, actually. At first, the movement had the biggest influence on design, i.e. creating beautiful furniture for palaces and homes of rich people.

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On Kawara - Telegram to Sol LeWitt, February 5, 1970, From I Am Still Alive, 1970–2000, LeWitt Collection, Chester, Connecticut. Conceptual art completely rejects aesthetics

The Philosophical Background of the Aesthetic

Although many philosophers were interested in aesthetics, only few of them influenced the emergence and the development of aestheticism. One of them is Immanuel Kant. Actually, Kant created philosophical foundations for the movement’s emergence. He postulated the autonomy of aesthetic standards, setting them apart from considerations of morality, utility, or pleasure. This idea was amplified by J.W. von Goethe, J.L. Tieck, and others in Germany and by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle in England. It was popularized in France by Madame de Staël, Théophile Gautier, and the philosopher Victor Cousin, who coined the phrase l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) in 1818. So, social and political themes are not relevant, and should not be used in art making – or they can, but only if the final product would be “beautiful”. In addition, the art’s role is not to educate or to enlighten someone. It exists just for the purpose of itself – the art for art’s sake.

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Beauty is in the Street

Art for Art’s Sake

What “art for art’s sake” actually means? It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only "true" art, is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function. The slogan is associated in the history of English art and letters with Walter Pater and his followers in the Aesthetic Movement, which was self-consciously in rebellion against Victorian moralism. However, it was more used for poetry. The basic idea that stands behind the The Art for Art’s Sake is that art is by definition aesthetical – no other purpose art can have.

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Christie's vs Sotheby's. Does the art market decide what is beautiful and what is ugly?

Main Proponents

Artists associated with the Aesthetic style include James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Aubrey Beardsley. Although the work of Edward Burne-Jones was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery which promoted the movement, it also contains narrative and conveys moral or sentimental messages hence it falls outside the given definition. However, when we speak about aestheticism today, we could not name any particular name from the world of contemporary art, because artists usually tend to distance themselves from this movement. Still, the movement is quite vivid, particularly its intellectual side. One of the major recent exhibitions celebrating aestheticism was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2011. The exhibition was entitled Cult of Beauty and it reflected how art spread into everyday life in the Victorian period.

Anish Kapoor – Dirty Corner at Versailles. "An ugly piece on a beautiful landmark"


Maybe the perfect critic against aestheticism came from Nietzsche. He claimed that there is no art for art’s sake. He asked: …what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? select? highlight? By doing all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations….Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l'art pour l'art? Other critics say aestheticism tends to be a kitsch art. William Morris and John Ruskin and, in Russia, Leo Tolstoy, questioned the value of art divorced from morality. What remains of art when it is excluded from social context? – this is one of the most important questions critics of aestheticism pose. Yes, aestheticism contributed to contemporary art with some ideas, it influenced the French Symbolist movement, fostered the Arts and Crafts Movement, and sponsored Art Nouveau. But, what about contemporary art today and the contemporary aestheticism?

Marina Abramovic - Art Must be Beautiful; Artist Must be Beautiful, 1975, one of the most powerful works on aestheticism

Contemporary Aestheticism

Proponents of aestheticism are often been accused of being conservative and traditional. For example, someone observes a painting by Christian Rosa. And, he/she asks: OK, but what is art in this piece? Where is the beauty? Or, imagine a person supporting aestheticism observing Marina Abramovic’s performance? Where is aesthetics in her art? Is that art at all? Or, any other piece within conceptual art movement. If we take a look at contemporary art scene, we will see that the vast majority of pieces that are popular could not be labeled as products of aestheticism. Indeed, it seems that the majority of contemporary artists reject basic principles and ideas of aestheticism. Just take a look who is the most popular street artist in the world? Does Banksy create only “pretty” art? Is he famous only for his pieces, or for political and social messages he sends? Those are crucial question if we want to find out the position of aestheticism today. Of course, there will always be voices saying that contemporary art is shallow, empty, ugly, and so on. But, what authority can determine if something is beautiful or not, if something is art or not? It’s the authority of the audience, and it appears that the majority of art lovers do not strictly follow the principled of aestheticism (which does not mean that some of its ideas are not followed by many people).

 Editors’ Tip: Beauty and Art: 1750-2000

In Beauty and Art: 1750-2000, written by Elizabeth Prettejohn, you will find answers to questions like “What do we mean when we call a work of art ‘beautiful’?” “How have artists responded to changing notions of the beautiful?” “Which works of art have been called beautiful, and why?” The author argues that we simply cannot afford to ignore these questions. Charting over two hundred years of western art, she illuminates the vital relationship between our changing notions of beauty and specific works of art, from the works of Kauffman to Whistler, Ingres to Rosetti, Cezanne to Pollack. Beautifully illustrated with 100 photographs--60 in full color--Beauty and Art concludes with a challenging question for the future: Why should we care about beauty in the twenty-first century?

All Images used for illustrative purposes only.