The Aesthetic Movement began toward the end of the 19th century. It was made up of many different kinds of art, including fine art, poetry, literature, and music. The movement was defined by the notion that “beauty was the most important element in life” (Easby 2016).
Artists were creating pieces of work that embodied this ideal. This ideal was also codified in terms of pure viscerality and emotions. The emotive portion of aestheticism is by far the most important part of the movement, with Aesthetes forgoing stringent codes of morality in art so as to achieve freedom. And as the aesthetic movement forwent morality, its texts were largely devoid of prescriptive moral messages, rather giving the maxim to live life as art, which is to live life free. There is a lot of confusion around who the person was who began this movement; however, some research shows that aestheticism was coined by Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne in literature specifically. This movement was known to be an important stepping stone to what is known as “modern art.” Poetry was a quintessential part of this movement, as a lot of the most influential works come from poets such as Morris, Swinburne, and Levy. Other influential writers such as Oscar Wilde were known to be “overly elaborate and ornate”, and utilized a more playful writing style.
Morris, who was another very important writer during this time, instead “saw art as inseparable from political ideals” (Burdett 2014). In addition to this, Morris’ views can be interpreted as saying that separating art from politics carries a danger, for this monomaniac cult of Aestheticism will naturally reinforce bourgeois politics. The reinforcement comes via way of not using art as a political challenge and confronter, and the fact that artists of the Aesthetic movement were generally of the higher class (so, naturally they would see no issue with de-politicizing one of the most powerful tools for transformative change).These kinds of works and styles of writing were known as “creative as well as productive” (Burdett 2014). At the time, this style of writing and these writers were often seen as “alarming to the more conventional Victorians” (Burdett 2014). Aestheticism was often heavily criticized in the context of the time in which it was written in the form of satire in the news, especially when artists and writers would release these works.
Many aesthetic art pieces focused on beautiful women with long hair in stunning interiors decorated with peacock feathers and other luxuries. William Morris created stunning household textiles, wallpaper, and furniture. The most famous aesthetic artist, however, was acclaimed American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who is best known for his self portrait of his mother sitting in a chair in a gray interior with a stern look on her face. His simplistic representations were constantly looking for a story with which to connect his pieces, and Whistler himself asserted that “the vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story from which it may be supposed to tell” (Easby 2016).