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!