Aesthetes and Philistines
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.