Aesthetic Movement (EoH)

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The origins of this trend are usually sought in the concept of "art for art's sake," a concept that arose in France in the middle years of the nineteenth century, when a tendency to deny all utilitarian functions of art gained favor. However, the full development of the aesthetic movement would not have been possible without the background in England, for it was here that the movement in the specific sense arose. In such writers as A. W. N. Pugin (1812-1852) and John Ruskin (1819-1900) disgust with the squalor and alienation brought by the coming of the industrial revolution went hand in hand with a demand for thoroughgoing reform of society, religion, and art. This agitation called forth such diverse results as Christian socialism; the Oxford movement and bglo-Catholicism; the Gothic revival in architecture; Pre-Raphaelitism in painting and poetry; and the arts and crafts movement. As this catalogue suggests, these trends melded a nostalgic yearning for a supposed organic society of bygone days with utopian hopes for a new social and aesthetic order. The arts and crafts movement in particular sought to transform the domestic environment. The homosexual contribution to the rise of this trend has not been adequately documented, but clearly it foreshadowed the enthusiasm of so many cultivated gay people today for furniture and antiques.

By common consent, the high priest of the aesthetic movement in the literary sphere was a homoerotic Oxford don, Walter Pater. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was the bible of the arty young man of late Victorian times, and his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885) offered further detail, in a nostalgic Roman setting. By 1881 the type had become familiar enough to be satirized by W. S. Gilbert in his musical comedy Patience. The trend attained triumph and tragedy in the meteoric career of Oscar Wide, whose trials and conviction for gross indecency tarnished the whole tendency. Many aesthetes, to be sure, were not homosexual, yet like Algernon Swinburne and Aubrey Beardsley they could be accused of cognate sexual sins. In the public perception, there was also an interface between the homosexual aesthetes and those who were merely sissified or wimpish. The overelegant, foppish type has a history stretching back to the dandy of the early nineteenth century and forward to the sissy of Hollywood films.

Another manifestation lay in the sphere of religion. Many British homosexuals were attracted to the "aesthetic" emphasis of high Anglicanism with its elaborate ritual and lavish vestments. Others were attracted to esoteric novelties, such as spiritualism and theosophy. These two trends, historic ritualism and the occult, were combined in the eccentric figure of Charles Webster Leadbeater.


J. E. Chamberlin, Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour: The Age of Oscar Wilde, New York: Seabury Press, 1977; Ian Small, ed., The Aesthetes: A Sourcebook, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Wayne R. Dynes

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