Aestheticism: Victorian Counterculture (or Were the Aesthetes the Victorian Emos?)
While the word “counterculture” didn’t emerge until the 1960s, there have been underground and non-mainstream cultures for much longer. One such counterculture movement was the aesthetic movement of the Victorian era. Aestheticism might not immediately come to mind when someone considers countercultures, but I have concluded that it very much was one, and it made as much of an impact as the hippie movement that spawned the term.
Since “counterculture” wasn’t coined yet, Thomas Plowman’s 1895 essay “The Aesthetes: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century Cult”, as evidenced by the title, classifies the aesthetes as a cult. I forgive Plowman for his lack of hip vocabulary, but I don’t see the aesthetes as a cult. They fit much better as a counterculture.
Much like the hippies, the aesthetes were reacting against what mainstream culture deemed appropriate for the arts and lifestyle. Plowman presents the aesthetic movement’s main object as “the breaking down of artificial barriers”, as well as the “guiding principle [of] fidelity to nature” (31) – a very close resemblance to the vision espoused by the hippies of 1960s.
In my formative years, the counterculture du jour was emo, and its derivative, scene. With origins in the 1990s, emo was a branch of the goth counterculture of the 1980s. As I read Plowman’s essay, I was incredibly amused by the parallels I found between the aesthetes and the emo kids of my teenage years. Plowman describes some aesthetic poetry as having “sickly sentiment and verbal obscurities,” as well as highlighting the tendency toward “morbid melancholy” and “to look upon the darker side of life,” not to mention the “smothered discontent with things in general” (33). These same qualities are rife through 2000s emo culture. An intense dissatisfaction of life, romanticizing sadness, and preoccupation with the macabre defines the emo lifestyle. They reflected their attitude, like the aesthetes, through art. Particularly poetry (in the form of song lyrics, usually) and a unique style of gloomy, cartoonish artwork.
The emo and scene kids of the 2000s also share the characteristic of extravagance with the Victorian aesthetes. Plowman describes the aesthetes’ extravagance through their abundant collections of imported “quaint curios and artistic knickknacks” (39), and a review of Aesthete Messiah Oscar Wilde’s fashion preference for knee-breeches, silk stockings, and velvet jackets. Emo and scene kids defined themselves with long, straight bangs parted far to one side, excessive arm bracelets, and most importantly, incredibly tight skinny jeans. Scene was the most extravagant of the two, incorporating bright colours, “raccoon” hair extensions, and flashier make-up. Their bedrooms were decorated with countless posters of their favourite bands, along with large collections of band merchandise and CDs.
The “dark” countercultures generally emerged as a reaction to the mainstream culture that said, “Be happy, look respectable and approachable, and let’s not talk about death.” Obviously these countercultures are inspired by the gothic movements of the Romantic and Victorian periods. Plowman explains that in the early part of the nineteenth century “beauty found little practical expression” and he states, “The Gothic Revival was the outcome of a desire for better things” (28). The Victorian Gothic Revival wasn’t the only gothic revival human culture would see, as evidenced by the resurfacing of the gothic in the late twentieth century. The twentieth and twenty-first century gothic revivals are more recognized by their fashion style, thanks to the change in availability of unique fashions, but also still share interest in many of the artistic and literary themes.
While comparing the aesthete, emo, and hippie countercultures, it is clear that they were all very artistically driven. The aesthetes demanded a relationship between the arts, connecting and blending poetry, painting, and music. They did not just have their hands in one form of art, and neither did the hippies or emos. Music became the foremost art form in the twentieth century, and the hippie movement brought iconic music to the world, such as Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. The Beat Poets were massively influential on the hippie movement, and activist-fuelled performance and visual art was essential. Emo didn’t make as much of an impact on the art world as hippies or aesthetes, but had its share of art blending. Poetry was central to the emo community in the form of song lyrics, with fans often tattooing their favourite lines on their bodies, or simply copying them down in their notebooks. Drawing and sketching was also common among emos and their social media would be decorated with their favourites, such as the wildly popular Pon and Zi comics.
The most important characteristic of countercultures that separates them from cults is that they often start out as a small, select group, but eventually end up breaking into the mainstream they were set out against. Plowman describes this in his essay, exploring those that adopt the culture but aren’t as authentic, or what I can only define as poseurs. He explains that there were people that adopted the aesthetic lifestyle for two reasons: “it created an excuse for shopping” and they could “[impress] their neighbours” (38). This is no different than the people who wore hippie garb and peace signs in the 1960s but weren’t activists, as well as the rise in popularity of a store like Hot Topic that made goth/punk/emo style popular and marketable when the entire point was to be unique and against anything popular.
Following this, these countercultures are often the target for criticism and satire. Plowman reveals that satirical attacks on aestheticism helped drag aestheticism out of fashion, as the common person only knew of the caricatures. This is particularly similar to the hippie movement, as the average person thought of a hippie as a lazy stoner despite the many meaningful hippie activists. Emo also became a subject of ridicule – I remember my friends and I using the term to put down someone who was being remotely emotional. Laughter and parody buried any profound meaning that the counterculture had in the beginning.
While a cult may gain a substantial following, cults rarely gain the wide influence that a counterculture does. Aestheticism was a counterculture of the late Victorian period, almost a hundred years before the concept was even thought of. It shares many parallels between the counterculture that spawned the term and the one for which I have teenage-hood nostalgia. The aesthetes mantra was “Art for Art’s sake”, and though they didn’t word it this way, I would say the hippies had “Love for Love’s sake” and the emos had “Sadness for Sadness’ sake.” The impact that these countercultures had on popular culture demonstrate that they were not just minor, artistic cults, but massively influential movements that were important to art and culture.