Have you ever just swiped up your Instagram feed, and indulged in over-glorified trails of beautiful photos, breath-taking sunsets, colour-popping fashion spreads, and simply… felt something over nothing? There perhaps isn’t any discernible reason why you sighed in awe and appreciation: maybe the colour palette just appealed to you? Perhaps the composition of the picture was dynamic? Or more realistically, you didn’t even think twice about why you liked it. Yet, there’s just something about it that really tickles your senses, and you can’t help but appreciate it, if only for a fleeting moment.
That is a good starting example of what the essence of Aestheticism looks and feels like — love for the seemingly pure aesthetic value. Aestheticism is defined as the intellectual and artistic movement supporting the concept of beauty over everything: whether that be politics, literary criticism or any deeper subject matter than the aesthetic value of the art itself. Of course, today you might not find many individuals who subscribe to putting beauty over everything( or might you?). However, the spectrum of art that Aestheticism applies itself to is far more interesting and vast than one would picture; literature, music, interior design, fashion, and of course, the fine arts (eg. paintings and sculptures). Yet, in our modern world where we’re already inundated by countless different ways of interpreting the world, you may be thinking, “Why on Earth are we bothering with the idea of Aestheticism?”
Thus, brings forth the point of this article: what Aestheticism is in a world of meaning. Now, hear me out, there’s a reason why I’m prodding open this unnecessary vacuum of thought when we’re all already swamped and suffocated with all too many existing ideas. It does hold value to us to understand, and further appreciate this idea — if anything, in a world burgeoning with pre-existing meaning, Aestheticism offers a much needed respite of simplicity and comfort.
It can provide outlets of release from a world that demands clear, articulated ideas. What it offers is escapism via art that intuitively pleases our senses — art which reverberates with our emotions rather than our intellect. At its heart is the desire to create, to exalt taste, the pursuit of beauty, and self-expression over moral expectations and restrictive conformity. Historically, the Aesthetic movement emerged from the detestement of the dreary, muddy landscape of art in the industrial Victorian age, utilised as only vehicles for philosophical, political and social ideology. The inundation of art with such didactic purposes as moral navigators or narrative instruments had left more than a few artists feeling suffocated. Art had become so tied down with the need to have meaning and ideological utility that the fluidity and freedom of art had become constrained, even stifling the full self-expression of the artist. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Thus, came the rise of the Aesthetes — artists who had felt so bondaged by the mandatory search for meaning in their works, they chased the long-lost purity of art. Some prominent Aesthetes are still iconic today, like Oscar Wilde or Dante Rossetti to name a few. While this may come as a shock to 21st-century us, they were actually rebels of their time, considered a scandalous and undignified breed of artists in the conservative Victorian era. And you might be incredulously asking, “Why?”, because understandably, simply creating art for arts sake with absolutely no ideological purpose, and then being considered ‘radical’ sounds rather absurd. But it’s true. And quite important. For if not for it, modern 21st-century art would not have flourished so liberally and freely: beauty in taboo subjects such as nudity and seeking premium quality craftsmanship instead of consumerist imitation may not have been as widely explored as it is today.
So, perhaps the takeaway should be this: In times of political clashes and existential catastrophe, a time of confusing yet binding and sometimes even blinding social structures, those little displays of ‘meaningless’ art dotted through our day can mean the most sometimes, whether it be gorgeous fashion or spell-binding music. It’s a creativity and a source of living we can never let go, a powerful illustration of our soul we shouldn’t underestimate. Aestheticism lives just as profoundly in today’s bodies of art as it did before, although most definitely not the be-all end-all of our creative works. And hopefully, we know to appreciate having it. More so than ever, we find ourselves living in a time of uncertainty, and in the midst of it we turn to art to find respite. And almost it seems, history repeats itself: it was after the plague of the Middle Ages that the Renaissance period came, where art and creativity burgeoned forth with an invigorated spirit. In this age of the old and the new, complication and uncertainty, there’s no better time to create something that means everything to you.
Koh Ying Alexandra, 19A12
Media credits (in order of appearance):
- Photo by Aleksander Kyung on Unsplash
- Photo by Elena Mozhvilo /Bunny Wong on Unsplash