I propose to consider the nature of aesthetics through the perspectives of three contemporaries of early 20th century England (Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941, Clive Bell, 1881-1964, and Sylvia Gosse, 1881-1968), with claim to an intimate understanding of the aesthetic. This is an imaginative journey of my own making. I find imagination makes empathy possible. (1) Imagination allows me to put aside my definitions and distinctions regarding the aesthetic, and give credence to alternative perspectives. Aesthetics is an elusive entity that is used indiscriminately to capture a felt dimension of lived experience. Superficially the aesthetic is a term often used to mean simple beauty, referring to the harmonious, pleasant, or seductive look of a form/object. This is a consideration void of the meaning(s) or significance(s) of a form/object. In fact, too often in everyday discourse this superficial application of the aesthetic seems to be the primary meaning attached to this term. Despite the thick traditions associated with aesthetics, most of us use the term without a full and personal comprehension of the meaning(s) to which we wish to refer with our use. Imaginative possibilities beckon louder.
As I enter into the thinking of Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, and Sylvia Gosse, I begin to sketch a picture of turn of the century England. The year, 1897, marked Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The world witnessed the pomp and power of the British Empire. (2) Britain was admired as a manufacturing nation, as merchant, freight carrier, and banker. The lingering image of the Victorian as that of a stern faced industrialist, a cautious, hardworking figure, the corner stone of the social structure that was Victorian England, was changing. The turn of the century saw the abandonment of this solemnity by the rich. A greater exuberance existed. The Victorians indulged their taste for the extravagant and different. The art world (largely supported and populated by the upper classes) reflected this excitement and newfound energy. (3) Artists sought new directions, forms, and content. In part this was a reflection of a growing consciousness of the individual's subjective environment as evidenced in a variety of psychological theories being proposed (Freud) and concepts of political organizations undergoing radical change (social reform, women's vote). This new attitude was not the privilege of the majority, though; the indelible class structure of Victorian England persisted and endured.
Within this turn of the century milieu, I find Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, and Sylvia Gosse sharing a like upbringing, belonging to a powerful cultural stratum of upper middle class England. Their lives were rich in privilege and opportunity. They were well educated, serious about their endeavors, and had the time, money, and desire to pursue their interests. Each was passionate in their beliefs and spent their lives consumed by these passions.
Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell were principal figures in the "Bloomsbury Group," named for a district in Holborn, London, England that became the main intellectual and culture center of London. In Bloomsbury writers and artists met and pursued the thoughts and questions of the day. (4) There existed an enviable vital connection between literature, arts and society at large. The outbreak of war was festering and smoldering in the background providing a backdrop for debate, eliciting contradictory values, roles, and expectations. I envision a meeting place of lively debate and youthful passion.
Virginia Woolf ventured boldly into this milieu as a novelist and critic. Her "stream of consciousness" writing style provided invaluable insights into her own life and concomitantly life experiences of women at the turn of the twentieth century. (5) In an extended essay "A Room of One's Own" she ponders the distinctive struggle of the woman artist. This essay both conveys personal convictions and maps out the terrain of a feminist aesthetic. …