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The social utility of art, 1870-1925: aestheticism and the reading public in the works of Amy Levy and Vernon Lee

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  • Pr English Literature
  • Design
  • Philosophy


Traditionally, our idea of late-19th-century British Aestheticism has been understood as a socially-disengaged cultural movement. However, as Paul Tucker noted, Walter Pater suggests that aesthetic consumption can be ethically-engaged when informed by a 'scholarly conscience.' The following study is concerned with writers Amy Levy (1861-1889) and Vernon Lee (1856-1935), whose dissatisfaction with the social elitism of the Paterian critic and interest in the public sphere, prompted a re-theorisation of the relationship between art's aesthetic value and its social utility. Surveying the breadth of each writer's critical and fictional works, I argue that whilst Levy and Lee extend Aestheticism to a broader reading public, the term 'public' is something of a misnomer. Their oeuvres are not, in principle, open to anyone. Both well-educated writers, Lee and Levy do not forfeit their intellectual integrity and creative esteem; instead, both mediate between aesthetic perfectionism and social utility. Recently, Nicholas Shrimpton has asserted that: 'Art for Art's Sake is not a mark of triviality,' but instead 'the guarantee of [...] professional and intellectual integrity.' As figures on the outskirts of accepted notions of readership, securing professional and intellectual integrity is an important authorial strategy for both Levy and Lee. Overall, this study sheds a fresh light on what the term 'New Aestheticism' means: whilst it extends our more traditional definition of Aestheticism-- by enabling us to consider a broader range of socially-marginalised figures as actively participating within it-- this revised definition still regards Aestheticism as a movement that selects and excludes.

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