A Student Response to the Aesthetic Movement

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.

8 thoughts on “A Student Response to the Aesthetic Movement

  1. I just missed out on being both an emo!lkid and a scene!kid by a couple of years, but I definitely recall turning sad song lyrics into Nexopia layouts. While I haven’t read Plowman’s essay I’m curious about the connection between the aesthetes and other neo-Goth countercultural movements such as Gothic lolita? Basically: in which ways, specifically, is everything old new again?

    This was a joy to read, and definitely has me thinking about the ways in which aestheticism is still alive and well. Kudos!

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    • Thank you!! While I’m not as familiar with Gothic Lolita as 2000s emo/scene, I know that Lolita is very much inspired by 19th century fashion. Gothic Lolita looks like it started sometime in the late 20th century, like when goth was coming about. I am curious as to why goth arose in the 1980s/1990s, but my guess would be that it was a reaction to the conservatism that was the mainstream in that time. After the counterculture hippies in ’60s and ’70s didn’t get the radical change they fought for, things started to sort of revert back to the way it was in the 1950s after WWII. A lot of hippies gave up on the dream and succumbed to “the man”. This created the heavy business culture that emerged in the United States in the ’80s. I think what Plowman said about Gothic reemerging because “beauty found little practical expression” in the Victorian period is exactly why Gothic returned once again in the 1980s. Gothic Lolita is a branch of this that was mainly popular in Japan, and according to the Wikipedia, it was essentially a feminist movement. Women were tired of the culture of just existing to find a husband and they decided to spend their time on something that made them happy. So in regards to your question, it seems that trends return when similar societal environments return. Often we look to past to find answers when we’re lost in the present. And now that we have so much access to the past via the internet, it is much easier to find inspiration in any era we find interesting. I hope that makes sense! Thank you for commenting 🙂

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  2. What a absolutely perfectly stated parallel!
    I found the acknowledgment of the Aesthetics as a form of counter-culture to be relevant and well stated. There are only one thing that I’d like to add to you’re discussion to strengthen this idea and one account which I disagree on.

    While you touched on the countering of status quo I feel that it’s important to bring up the societal conditions which help rise counter-culture. The hippies had a decades of war and political which brought about the desire for peace. The emo and scene culture had the conservatism and post-cold war stability which gave rise to stifling optimism which demanded to be challenged by dark and rebellious themes. The Victorians had the pains of factory automation and pragmatic progress which could only be countered by something which served no useful purpose other than to please.

    Secondly, I wanted to bring up the modern usages of the word “cult” to describe fringe interests and groups. I believe the designation of movies such as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “The Room” as “Cult Classic” films shows a similar sentiment to the one argued by Plowman. Likewise if we look at the tongue in cheek references of certain television fan collectives (aka “fandoms”) as cults it shows the continued secular usage of the word to denote a favoured passion or a life style which seems to revolve around a medium. The synonymous relation between hippy “communes” and cult-like behaviour further demonstrates the attitudes held against counter culture phenomenons.The word “cult” continues to be applied by those within the mainstream to those at the fringes with the invariable power to suggest irrationality and unorthodoxy. Therefore the use of the word “counter-culture” applies far less judgement to the Aesthetics but does not adequately replace the message Plowman intends.

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  3. I like the idea of Plowman using the word cult to describe a counter-culture movement because no other applicable word existed. It’s an interesting concept, and could also help to make sense of the perspectives that modern conservative groups hold about what we call counter-culture today.

    I didn’t draw this parallel while reading the essay, but now I see my teenage self described by Plowman’s categorization. It seems like there will always be some punk acting out against authority somewhere.

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  4. I love this parallel between Plowman’s essay and the counter-culture groups that have existed in the last several decades. While I agree that the term “counter-culter” does not fully emphasize the unorthodox views that Plowman describes, I understand what you mean here. As time continues, we see a shift in the ways in which we define these types of groups, and they become much more difficult to define. They are a counter-culture, but the ways in which they criticize aestheticism seems more severe than the word “counter-culture,” but less severe than the word “cult.” I really enjoy your comparisons here, and it’s interesting to see the challenge of aestheticism live on.

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  5. Your take on the similarities between the twentieth-century goth counter-culture and the Aesthetic movement of the Victorian period is interesting. What I found most engaging about the different movements like the goth counter-culture and the hippie movement of the 70’s is the parallel of fighting the mainstream views of their times just like the aesthetics of the Victorian period. Thank you for a great read!

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  6. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I thought that you made such interesting connections between modern day counter-culture movements and the aesthetic movement during the Victorian era. I really enjoyed these comparisons because I was definitely an emo kid back in the early 2000s, and I agree that so much of that culture really did parallel with the aesthetic movement. Great read!

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  7. The comparisons drawn from Gothic texts, the aesthetic movement, and the popular emo phase prevalent in the early 2000s was rather interesting to read. It nicely illustrated how they influenced the other, and the same was visible ‘through art.’ You have effectively shown how these phases and movements have derived their ideals from the previous ones and the never-ending need for aesthetics in our lives. Plowman’s use of the word cult to describe the counter-culture movement is interesting seeing that other applicable terms did not exist at the time. It is fascinating to read about how such terms or phrases came to life and how they still exist, providing deeper insight into the history of the aesthetic movement. It was quite interesting to read about the parallels that exist between the aesthetic movement from the late 1900s and the emo phase, popular in the early 2000s, since I was surrounded by some emo classmates at the time.

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