Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty: Theorising Aestheticism

If the Owl of Minerva does indeed fly only at night, then the best time to mull over the ‘Cult of Beauty’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum will be the day on which it closes (which happens to be today). This has been a wonderfully rich display of Aestheticism and its works, of which my own personal favourites were Albert Moore’s sumptuously orange ‘Midsummer’ painting, the recreation (by projectors) of Whistler’s Peacock Room, and Godwin’s Anglo-Japanese furniture designs. This being Aestheticism, there are of course sunflowers, peacock feathers, Japanese fans and sleeping women everywhere.

But if we want to theorise Aestheticism rather than just review it, if we want to offer an account worthy of Hegel’s philosophical Owl, then we might return to a book which I remember being very excited about when it was translated during the ‘literary theory wars’ of the 1980s, namely Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avantgarde. For Bürger broke dramatically with the ‘1848’ theory of modern art associated with Georg Lukács, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes, in which the revolutions of that year bring a transparently classical or realist mode of writing crashing down and replace it with the densely self-referential modernist writing of Flaubert, Mallarmé and others. Instead, for Bürger, it is Aestheticism at the very end of the nineteenth century which is the key turning point of modern art, because it radically separates artistic value from utilitarian daily life, an exclusivist gesture which will then let the early twentieth-century avantgardes angrily blast aesthetics back to the life-world.

Does Peter Bürger’s decidedly philosophical account mesh with the V&A’s Aestheticism exhibition itself? Well, yes indeed. For if the Albert Moore and late Burne-Jones paintings create a realm of pure beauty and exquisite decorative surfaces entirely removed from the quotidian, then even the works here which do engage the everyday – tiles, arm-chairs, garden gates, fire-dogs, and so on – pull so far away in the direction of a Tennysonian Palace of Art that they too vanish into the Aestheticist aether. What is created in both cases is an autonomous realm of exquisite aesthetic privilege which will indeed require the exhilarating cultural vandalism of the avantgarde – of the Marinettis and Mayakovskys and Wyndham Lewises – to bring it back to anything like the ordinary workaday world. So, thanks to the V&A for a superb exhibition, but we shall also need, with the Futurists, to take a pickaxe to all of these wonderful artefacts too!


ianmac55 said...

Hi Tony,

I think I agree with this argument - not from considerations in the history / theory of culture (clearly I have much reading to do) but because, shortly after going to the V & A show, I went to the Vorticist show at Tate Britain.

So, "BLAST years 1837 to 1900", although the Tate did not explore the strong hints of proto-Fascism and racism in Wyndham Lewis's avant-gardism and its links with Italian futurism.

So I must add "Tarr" to my reading list as well as Bürger!



Tony Pinkney said...

Haven't seen the Vorticism exhibition yet, Ian, but I'm glad they're celebrating that group. As Terry Eagleton used to say, while they (over in Europe) had Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Acmeism, Suprematism and so on, 'we had E.M. Forster'. But no, we had Vorticism too, so at least some of the truculent, combative and, yes, politically troubling energies of the European avantgarde made it over here. So I shall be off to Tate Modern as soon as I can, thanks for the reminder!

cynthia postlethwaite said...

The curators have neglected to tell you that Art for Art's sake cannot apply to objects of utility-decorative arts- because 'use' precedes beauty. This was a central tenet of the teaching of the South Kensington system from 1852 onwards (the V&A was founded as an integral part of this system) and fatally undermines the premise of the exhibition, and is in advance of the obvious division between the Fine and Decorative Arts claimed for (anywhere but England)the end of the century. A missed oportunity to tell the remarkable story of how England's decorative art reform started at South Kensington and influenced the world - including William Morris.

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