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.

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The Rebellion of Taste

be4The dandy was a rebel. A rebel who wielded the weapon of his unique refinement to express his contempt toward the triviality, hypocrisy,materialism, prudery of the Victorian bourgeoisie . The dandy did not follow fashion. Such a superior being would have never accepted to be homologated to the rude, tasteless masses. What is fashion after all, but a never-ending process of homologation, which not necessarily coincides with taste. The dandy embodied unattainable models of elegance and sophistication as he was the worshipper of taste, one who elevated aesthetics to a living religion, as Charles Baudelaire affirmed, the elect ” for who beautiful things mean only beauty“. (Oscar Wilde)

be6Yet, when the word dandy first appeared, it had nothing to do with superiority and refinement, but rather, with mockery. We find word dandy, in fact, in a song, ” Yankee Doodle Dandy“, which was sung by the British troops to mock the disorganized “Yankees” with whom they served in the French and Indian war at the end of the 18th century: “Yankee Doodle went to town Riding on a pony/ He stuck a feather on his hat / And called it macaroni/ Yankee Doodle keep it up/ Yankee Doodle dandy..…” In short the Yankees were so unsophisticated that they thought that simply sticking a feather on a cap would make them fashionable like “Macaronis”, which was the label given to those young Englishmen, who adopted feminine mannerism a highly extravagant attire . Hence, the insinuation was that the colonists were womanish and not very masculine.

Tbe2he first recognized dandy was George Bryan Brummell, who  became absolutely iconic in Regency England, so that he had the Prince Regent himself among his admirers and friends. ” Ever unpowdered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain dark blue coat, he was always perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing much perfectly starched linen, all freshly laundered, and composed with an elaborately knotted  cravat”, an accurate simplicity difficult to imitate. It seems,in fact,  that the Prince attempted in many ways to match the elegance of the famous counselor, but all his efforts proved vain.  George IV ventured to launch a new trend in order to emulate the style of Brummel, that of the waistcoat unbuttoned, but the result was a resounding failure.

be3The fact is that the Beau”, as he was soon nicknamed, was truly inimitable and not only for his attire. His personal habits, such as a meticulous attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing exerted a great influence on the habits of the upper polite society, who began to do likewise.  His elegance was not simply based on his appearance but also on his poses and especially on his way to make conversation: essential, acute, often snobbish, with superficial humor and quick repartee. Even women found him so charming and charismatic to consider his judgment priority over the same opinion of their husbands. But he was not the kind of man  who enjoyed the excess of compliments. True to the motto of the quintessential dandy – Stay in the company for the time needed to produce an effect: when the effect is produced, go away” – Brummell used to respond to invitations to parties and receptions operating quick and discrete raids ; incursions from which he took leave with a judgment, usually a joke, intended, after his departure, to echo long in the speeches of the other guests.

Unfortunately for him, along with the passion for elegance Brummell started to be attracted by gambling, a passion that will lead him to his downfall. He lived the last years of his life on the third floor of the Hotel d’Angleterre, in Caen, where he became fallen hero for tourists who knew him and asked to have lunch next to the famous master of elegance. Not even the admiration of the people, however, changed his sad fate: The clarity of his appearance had tarnished […] when you met him on the street, he was only a shabby and dirty old man. And after the decline, madness followed. londonrem