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At once a theory of art and an approach to living, aestheticism emphasizes the absolute autonomy of works of art, their total preeminence over other aspects of life, and their independence of moral and social conditions. The aestheticist movement took on extraordinary force at the end of the nineteenth century, primarily in France and England but also in Italy, Germany, and to a lesser extent, the United States.

In histories of the movement, aestheticism is often conflated with the French l'art pour l'art movement, literary decadence, and fin-de-siècle dandyism. Historically, it has been linked to homosexuality, not only because of the implications of its principles, but also because of the personal sexual tastes of some of its key adherents.

Among its more important propagandists were, in France, Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, J. K. Huysmans, Paul Verlaine, Count Robert de Montesquiou, Claude Debussy, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Jean Cocteau, and Marcel Proust and, in England, Algernon Swinburne, George Moore, Walter Pater, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, William Butler Yeats, James McNiell Whistler, John Addington Symonds, Edmund Gosse, and Oscar Wilde, as well as members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of painters and such Bloomsbury figures as the art critic Roger Fry.

Others whose work suggests ties to aestheticism were Gabriele d'Annuzio, Gustav Klimt, Rainer Maria Rilke, Serge Diaghilev, and Henry James, particularly the James of the novelist's late phase and the critical prefaces.

The variety of such an inventory should help indicate how troublesome is any attempt to define aestheticism as, strictly speaking, a homosexual enterprise. Yet there is little question that the arguments of the aestheticist movement were frequently thinly veiled attempts by fin-de-siècle homosexuals, particularly those educated at Oxford and Cambridge, at justifying relations between members of the same sex.

The Philosophic Foundations of Aestheticism

The philosophical premises of aestheticism originate in the German philosophical tradition represented by Kant, Schelling, Goethe, and Schiller. Kant's claim concerning works of art--that they are disinterested, "pure," and that they bespeak a second nature through human agency--might be understood as supplying an intellectual basis for homosexual relations, particularly if one chooses to conceive of "second nature" in erotic terms.

Kant's view of art as "purposiveness without purpose," moreover, could be willfully construed as suggesting that procreative sexuality is inessential. Kierkegaard's negative diagnosis of aesthetic man in his Either/Or (1864) contrasted the man of aesthetic commitments with ethical man because of the former's absorption in a series of moods to which he completely surrenders himself.

In a rebuttal of Pater before Paterian aesthetics, Kierkegaard criticized aesthetic man because of his refusal to assume a single, coherent personality. Without ever alluding to homosexuality, Kantian and Kierkegaardian ideas thus gave a certain philosophical foundation to a life devoted to "amoral" impulses. The schism between moral austerity and aestheticist principle identified by Kierkegaard was one that homosexual artists frequently chose as the very subject of their treatment of aestheticism.

Defenses of Aestheticism

Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), dance, theater, and art critic, offered the first full defense of the aestheticist credo in his celebrated preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), where the author, in expressing his ire at the pervasive utilitarianism of Parisian literary critics, insists on the all-determining importance of beauty.

The novel itself enacts the argument of the preface through the astonishing narrative of a man who, along with his mistress, believes he has fallen in love with a ravishing young man by the name of Théodore; in fact, they have become infatuated with Mademoiselle de Maupin. Before they realize their mistake, however, the hero worries that he may love men.

Gautier's Shakespearean comedy of manners presents an argument for aestheticism in such a way that the philosophy of l'art pour l'art is inextricably entangled with questions of sexual preference. Beauty, the novel strongly intimates, can be loved independently of a particular sex.

Furthermore, according to the reasoning of Mademoiselle de Maupin, a true connoisseurship of the beautiful must be indulged without an allegiance to conventional morality. In a number of Gautier's pronouncements in the novel--"There is something great and fine in loving a statue," for example, or "The impossible has always pleased me"--one glimpses aestheticism's debt to Romanticism in its concern with an exaggerated individualism and an exalted subjectivity.

The sexual ambiguity of so much aestheticist ideology often appears to be a cagey avowal of elitist , which, like aestheticism, proclaimed that what was "unnatural" was more beautiful and therefore preferable to that which was found in mundane nature.

In a controversial 1893 article in Harper's magazine entitled "The Decadent Movement in Literature," the critic Arthur Symons expressed his fondness for decadent aesthetics as a "new and interesting and beautiful disease," a view contemporaneously articulated, albeit in sterner scientific terms, by medical science in its discussion of homosexual "illness."

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Théophile Gautier offered the first full defense of Aestheticism in the preface of his 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin.
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