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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Just about

cupid 1What did the good Pharrel Williams say ?”Clap along if you know what happiness is to you“, well I guess he has done a lot clapping this year considering the immense success of his worldwide hit ” Happy“, however, do you know what happiness is to you, or better when? Metaphorically speaking when is the most intense moment of bliss: when you cross the finish line or the moment just before, when you are overwhelmed by that powerful combination of excitement and pain, in short, when you are “just about”?

cupid 3Just about” would have been Keats‘s prompt answer. In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, the poet is charmed by ” the leaf fringed legend ” that “haunts” the shape of an urn and focuses on the images which are depicted on its frieze . He is attracted by one scene in particular: there is a “bold lover” who is “winning near his goal “, that is, a beautiful young girl. He is just about to reach her, but unfortunately he is destined to live that frustrating condition forever, as art has stopped that moment and made it eternal.

That moment does not mean grief for the poet, but quite the contrary, for him it is the highest moment of happiness man can experience . The young boy’s love will be “for ever warm” as it is “still to be enjoyed“, and he will be ” for ever panting” for a girl whose youth and beauty will never fade away. Unfortunately time cannot be stopped, as once you eventually achieve your goal, your feelings are so overwhelming to devour that moment of bliss to leave you with “a heart high sorrowful and cloy’d, a burning forehead, and a parching tongue” looking at the ashes of what now is past.

cupid 2Canova ‘s “just about” can be admired in his magnificent statue of ” Cupid and Psyche“. “Cupid and Psyche” is a tale written by Apuleius a Latin-language prose writer. It narrates about the adventures of a young girl Psyche, who is uncommonly beautiful. Cupid, the son of Venus, desperately falls in love with Psyche and carries her to an enchanted, magnificent palace where they can secretly consume their passion, but he prohibits her to know his identity. The happiness of the young couple is threatened both by the envy of Psyche’s sisters, and by the hostility of Venus, who wouldn’t want her son to marry a mortal, whose beauty could be compared to her own, a goddess. Psyche follows the perfidious suggestions of her sisters thus disobeying Cupid, who consequently abandons her. She desperately seeks her lover, but she falls into the hands of her mother-in-law, Venus, who forces her to undergo insurmountable trials, which eventually she passes thanks to a series of extraordinary helps. A happy end follows: Jove himself will celebrate the wedding between Cupid and Psyche and will turn her into a goddess, making her immortal.

Canova represented in his statue the instant of the story, when he imagined intensity was at its pitch, that is when Cupid is “just about” to kiss Psyche. There is a slight, refined eroticism, while Cupid tenderly contemplates the face of the girl he loves, while Psyche reciprocates him with equal warmth and sweetness. You can feel that tension, before it bursts into passion. Psyche’s arms form a circle around the faces of the two lovers, which seems to frame the focal point of the statue. It’s inside that circle that the emotional tension swells and Cupid’s endless craving is close to be satisfied.He is just about.

However, experiencing that tension forever is impossible for both mortals or deities, only art can fix that moment. What comes next, then? Well, Cupid and Psyche had soon a beautiful daughter whose name was Voluptas, that is Pleasure. 😉