The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

By Rachel Teukolsky | Go to book overview

THREE
Pater’s New Republics

Aesthetic Criticism and the Victorian Avant-Garde

Coleridge, in one of his fantastic speculations, refining on the German word
for enthusiasm—Schwärmerei, swarming, as he says, ‘like the swarming of bees
together’—has explained how the sympathies of mere numbers, as such, the random
catching on fire of one here and another there, when people are collected together,
generates as if by mere contact, some new and rapturous spirit, not traceable in the
individual units of a multitude.

—Walter Pater, “The Bacchanals of Euripides” (1878; 1889)


Conditions of Music

If the Great Exhibition marked the arrival of Britain’s age of kitsch, that profusion of factory-produced wares would seem to inhabit a very different world than the rarified one of the British aesthetes who flourished in its wake. Yet the same economic conditions that enabled the production of inexpensive art also helped to inspire the knots of artists and writers who rebelled against those conditions. The Great Exhibition indicated a trend toward the democratization of culture in Britain, as members of the lower-middle and working classes attended the spectacle in unprecedented numbers. As Victorian art displays drew a larger and more varied audience, however, one inevitable result was the increasing commodification of the art experience. The world exhibitions that would continue throughout the century epitomized the entwining of the art and business worlds so characteristic of nineteenth-century Britain—an enmeshment also evident in the Royal Academy itself, an exhibition space catering to middle-class tastes by often selecting works with familiar subjects and conventional visual styles.1 For this reason, among others, it has been complicated and at times controversial to describe avant-garde formations that developed in Victorian Britain, reflecting a larger difficulty in discussing continuities between Victorian and modernist aesthetics.2 In this chapter, however, I show how Victorian commodity culture in fact accompanied an emergent avant-gardism; both of these elements are theorized as a new kind of sociability in the writings of Walter Pater, the most well-known representative of Britain’s Aesthetic movement. Pater’s essays capture one of the

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