The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.


11 thoughts on “The Aesthetic Retreat

    • If we think about our world as it is, well, it is clear that the romantics lost the fight. They dreamed of a spiritual world made of brotherhood, freedom, happiness and believed in the power of education. Losers. 😉

  1. Very thought-provoking. And then there is of course Coleridge’s albatross in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ — as with Baudelaire’s bird the mariner treats it poorly, shooting it down with a crossbow and bringing, as the rest of the crew sees it, bad luck on the shop. He is made to carry the bird as a kind of cross around his neck until he is able to express contrition. Coleridge’s poem is powerful because it works on so many levels, particularly as a parable that rails against thoughtless and impious actions.

    • ‘Ship’ not ‘shop’ of course! Coleridge’s albatross is figurative though not in the same way as Baudelaire’s, but both understand the potency of a symbol to express truths about art, humanity and the world.

      • Coleridge’s Albatross has a different meaning as you well said, but the Rime is perfect to understand how different the role of the romantic artist is. The Mariners stands for the poet, the chosen, a “commoner” who has developed a higher sensibility, whose task is to educate men. In this poem the Wedding Guest represents the materialistic society devoted to food, drinks, fun ( the wedding party). At the beginning he doesn’t want to listen to the story of the Mariner, but eventually, thanks to the charm of his narration, he yields, so that the Mariner will be able to impart him a moral lesson, which apparently works on him. I guess, somehow I am a true romantic , but I’ve opened my eyes to the world and I often feel like flying high.🙋

  2. I was just talking to an ex-art museum director who was bemoaning the attitudes of the artists and curators of the contemporary art scene. In her opinion, many artists (and poets) now pride themselves on creating works that the “average” person will not be able to understand. In fact some works have no specific meaning. I tested this theory years ago at art school in NYC. I made complete trash with no meaning. Then I intellectualized it with ridiculous stories behind the work. I was successful at fooling everyone, but that wasn’t my goal in life so I stopped after a while. I know I’ve gone a little off topic but I think that art should tell us something about life — even if it’s just that there are beautiful moments in life.
    Thanks, Tinker, for a thought provoking post!

    • Art has always been somehow the mirror of the times and our lives, it couldn’t be otherwise, but let me borrow Wilde’s words : ” It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”. 😉🙋

  3. I clearly remember discussing Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with you during my final exam at school. And I still remember your question (and the sudden, inner panic it caused)!
    I just feel, after re-discovering Keats’ words, that I could not relate more to his “Beauty is thruth, truth beauty”. And even if I understand Wilde’s point, I find myself disagreeing: if (any form of) art makes me feel this way, then it is far from useless. Quite the opposite 😉

    • Uhmmm, so wicked of me 😏. By the way, you ought to remember that on this point I agree with you ( or you with me🤔). The pursue of beauty cannot but have a moral aim, even if you don’t mean it. In a post I wrote that if beauty were a school subject , if people were taught to love and appreciate beauty, this world would be much better. 🙋

      • Yes I must admit it was a bit wicked, but nontheless I got the right answer (with a good amount of luck involved in the process :P).
        Anyway, even if they were just a “small” window on the subject, I remember your last year lessons about sublime and the suspension in disbelief being (pass me a bit of slang) so very refreshing, mind and heart-opening. They (or should I say you 🤔) really made me love poetry and literature and beauty even more! They went right to the core, they unveiled the deepest meanings hidden behind the words and the rethorics used to describe them.
        I was very lucky, as are your current students (except when you submit them word tests 🙂

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