Art and Literature in the Victorian Era

“Moral and utilitarian, the ruling class had little tolerance for beauty, which, at best, seemed useless or disreputable,” says William York Tindall. Can you imagine your artwork existing only to share a moral lesson? If it failed to do so, it was deemed useless or even dangerous…

The hard thing for me to understand, looking back at it, is just how incredibly overpowering this morality was. It was so harshly enforced from a young age of the Victorians, this moral repression, that it was unthinkable to challenge it. And that included art.

Tindall covers mainly literature from 1885-1956 in his book “Forces in Modern British Literature”. He holds that the year of 1885 is when art began to challenge this thinking. “Art for art’s sake implies the autonomy of art and artist,” he says. “A work of art must be judged by beauty alone.”

Never mind that there was still a concept of requiring beauty, which modern art today has challenged. The fact that the artist could not paint or write what they wished seems bizarre. Much of the work not meeting this standard was deemed merely “sensational” writings for the masses of middle-class who could now read and who had appallingly bad taste.

It does make you wonder if books like Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight are tomorrow’s classics, challenging today’s literary conventions…


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