Aes­thetes and Philistines

Old House Journal - - Style - — BRUCE BRAD­BURY, 1984

By the mid 1870s, “Art for Art’s Sake” as­sumed the pro­por­tions of a na­tional ma­nia in Eng­land. No longer de­pen­dent on se­ri­ous-minded me­dieval­ists like Mor­ris, the move­ment was whipped to a frenzy by a younger and out­ra­geous band of long-haired, ul­tra­el­e­gant Aes­thetes, as typ­i­fied by Os­car Wilde. The Cult of In­ten­sity, also known as the Aes­thetic Craze, came into full flower with its own sym­bol­ogy—the sun­flower, lily, and pea­cock—and star­tling new modes of dress and be­hav­ior.

To be aes­thetic was not merely to ap­pre­ci­ate Art, but to be­come of one­self Art­ful. Not just Art­ful, but vis­i­bly, soul­fully, ut­terly Art­ful, a chal­ice of exquisitely in­tense feel­ing. The most pop­u­lar expressions of the era used the word “too,” in­di­cat­ing that what­ever was be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced or de­scribed was sim­ply too ex­quis­ite, too re­fined, and too Art­ful to be con­veyed in mere words: It was sim­ply TOO! Ut­terly TOO! Con­sum­mate too too!

The op­po­site of the Aes­thete was the Philis­tine, those who were crude, de­void of cul­ture, bound by the ma­te­rial, and tied to the com­mon. “Com­mon” was the ul­ti­mate Aes­thetic in­sult. Gil­bert & Sul­li­van were ac­cused of be­ing Philistines when they pre­miered their op­eretta “Pa­tience” (1881), a par­ody of the Aes­thetic Move­ment: “Though the Philistines may jos­tle / you will rank as an apos­tle in the high aes­thetic band, / If you walk down Pi­cadilly with a poppy or a lily / in your me­dieval hand.” Au­di­ences were, how­ever, en­rap­tured by the beauty of Aes­thetic cos­tume. In­creas­ing num­bers of women hap­pily ex­changed their un­com­fort­able whale­bone corsets , tight bodices, and heavy skirty for light, flow­ing Gre­cian gowns, sleeves puffed at the shoul­ders in the Aes­thetic mode.

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