Redefining British aestheticism: elitism, readerships and the social utility of art

Townley, Sarah Ruth (2012) Redefining British aestheticism: elitism, readerships and the social utility of art. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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British Aestheticism’s demand for an elite audience has been conceived as emblematizing its reputation as a socially-disengaged movement. This thesis revises literary historical accounts of the movement by challenging such long-held assumptions. It aims to develop a more complex understanding of Aestheticism’s theorized reading practices in order to examine how the movement’s elitism evolves out of a concern for specialized methods of critical engagement with form, which are conceived as having ethical consequences. For authors and critics associated with British Aestheticism, a specialist appreciation of form, far from being a retreat from ethics, represents a refined mode of social engagement. In short, this study considers how the movement’s theories of art’s social utility are held to depend upon its elitism.

Scholarship has tended to utilize recuperations of Aestheticism to suit certain theoretical agendas and in the process has revised our understanding of the movement’s elitism. Feminist scholarship, for example, has defined a broader, more inclusive and capacious movement in which the link between art’s social utility and aesthetic value is redefined so that Aestheticism is open in principle to anyone, including the public at large. Nicholas Shrimpton has pointed out that the use of the term Aestheticism in recent scholarship ‘as a chronological catch-all [means] the term “Aesthetic” has been stretched so thin that it is [in] danger of collapsing.’ This thesis aims to recuperate the elitism of British Aestheticism, arguing that we should not allow modern values and priorities to reconstruct our understanding of Aestheticism’s critical terms and concepts. In doing so, it aims to re-historicize the Aesthetic Movement. More precisely, it shows how Walter Pater, Henry James and Vernon Lee (pseud. Violet Paget) formulate frameworks of ‘ideal’ aesthetic response against the backdrop of their engagements with intellectual and literary culture.

Each chapter traces a number of connecting threads concerning stylistic supremacy, readerly ethics and artistic responsibility that run between the works of these three figures. The first chapter reassesses Aestheticism’s elitist critical practices in relation to its readerships. This chapter pays close attention to the relationship between Pater, James and Lee’s aesthetic theories and authorial strategies expanding our traditional picture of the evolution of Aestheticism to encompass a more complex understanding of its theorization of its readerships. The second chapter traces the influence of the philosophical concept of Arnoldian disinterestedness as a negotiated framework of ‘ideal’ aesthetic response. It considers how a tension between elitism and ethics underlies this critical practice. Whilst this activity preconditions its practitioners for social interaction, it requires a specialist critic to undertake it. The third chapter examines how late-19th century psychological discourse informs our understanding of the tension between elitism and ethics which inhabits Aestheticism’s appropriations of disinterestedness. Overall, the argument of this thesis aims to reassess to the movement’s traditional emphasis on artistic integrity, readerly ethics and stylistic supremacy, but, at the same time, to rethink the periodicity and capaciousness of Aestheticism itself.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Guy, J. M
James, D.
Subjects: P Language and literature > PR English literature
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 14539
Depositing User: EP, Services
Date Deposited: 18 Sep 2014 10:23
Last Modified: 16 Sep 2016 12:02

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