The Aesthetic Experience across Three Centuries

Translating Louise Rosenblatt’s PhD (1931) on ‘Art for Art’s Sake’

Richard Whitney

Richard Whitney’s current research is on the work of Louise Rosenblatt and the poet H.D., and looks at the humanistic nature of literary experience and those who pursue this as a form of wisdom-knowledge inquiry. He has presented papers on Rosenblatt and Ottoline Morrell, and has a forthcoming publication on Ottoline’s presence in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. In 2014 he was awarded an AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership with Midlands3Cities at De Montfort University. He also models, focusing on artistic-erotic nudes, and blogs about erotic modelling as a performance art. Twitter: @richardjwhitney 

Louise Rosenblatt, L’idee de l’art pour l’art dans la littérature anglaise pendant la période victorienne, Bibliothèque de la Revue de Littérature Comparée, 70 (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1931).

Graduation in 1925 – quotation from Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lotus Leaves’

On 3 June 2014 the US National Endowment for the Arts tweeted ‘What’s the difference btw being a citizen and being an artist?’ What exactly is the role of artists in society? Should they comment on social issues, have a political ‘message’, aim to change the world? Emphatically No, just No, the followers of art for art’s sake would say. Or they do, according to Louise Rosenblatt (1904-2005) in her PhD thesis, written on these ‘creative souls’ in late-Victorian England, and which she painstakingly crafted in French at the Sorbonne under the supervision of the pioneer of Comparative Literature, Fernand Baldensperger.

Many things strike us as unusual here, not least the fact that a native English speaker should choose to write the biggest piece of scholarship she had written to date in a language other than her mother tongue. But more than that: as Victorianists, we are used to the narrative as presented in Kelly Boyd’s and Rohan McWilliam’s Victorian Studies Reader (2007) which tends to suggest that it was only after the Second World War that scholars en-masse started to take the Victorian period seriously. ‘The Age of Recrimination’ (1901-1945) gave way to ‘The Age of Evaluation’ (1945-1980), before the era dawned in which we now live and move and have our being, witness as it is to theoretically-driven studies in material culture, ideas, gender-inflected subjectivities, and so on and so forth.

But in the 1920s in NYC, in Paris, in Grenoble, in London, Louise Rosenblatt was becoming convinced of the need for comparative studies of past and present literary cultures, largely driven by the up and coming social sciences and psychological approaches to individuals in modern, industrial societies (she was a close friend of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and had graduate training with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict; while her Franco-American fellowship from 1925-26 had the enabling support of the Dean of Barnard College (Rosenblatt’s alma mater), Virginia Gildersleeve – a known supporter of cross-cultural integration, and the sole female US delegate to negotiate the UN Charter in 1945).

I believe that L’art pour l’art (now long out of print) is highly significant for Victorian Studies, on the surface because it feels so modern, utilising these various disciplinary approaches in a way that foreshadows our own practice. Like most PhDs, it was a step beyond and response to an earlier work: Albert M. Cassagne’s la Théorie de l’art pour l’art en France chez les derniers romantiques et les premiers réalistes (1906). Rosenblatt sought to trace the influences acting and reacting upon a group of late-Victorian English writers from across the Continent and beyond, clustering around the ‘idea’ of art for art’s sake. She provides detailed studies on Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, on Swinburne (influenced by Gautier and Baudelaire), on Walter Pater (himself influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Swinburne, and in his style, by Flaubert), and on Oscar Wilde and, interestingly, within this chapter, there are studies on the non-fictional or non-poetic sources, The Yellow Book and The Savoy, which seem disconcertingly familiar to those of us who cannot remember life before the linguistic turn. Moreover, Rosenblatt’s vision is almost catholic, ranging from the Romantics (one reviewer deemed her passages on Keats to be her finest) through D. G. Rossetti and Whistler, to Henry James, George Moore, Arthur Symons and W. B. Yeats.

I believe that this span and range is signally important and shouldn’t be lightly overlooked, especially by 21st-century Victorianists. It is tempting to feel in literary and cultural scholarship today that our vision is becoming ever narrower, and that we are losing sight of the broader picture of trends and developments. In her Conclusion, Rosenblatt rounds on her own age and explicitly explains the way in which social and cultural attitudes toward art, the aesthetic experience, and the artist in the 1920s, were inherited or modified by the earlier, late-Victorian art for art’s sake phenomenon. She admits that ‘our eclectic age is less concerned to formulate strictures than the Victorian age’, and that ‘it seems that in the general conscience there has penetrated a vague sense that art has value in itself, as an enriching element that can perhaps contribute to civilization’ (p. 305) – to be understood as a rounded ‘aesthetic experience’. In other words, because the first decades of the twentieth century witnessed a disintegration of rigid moral and social values, there was less need for artists to declare their independence from society and its claims. On the other hand, she also observes that ‘the influence of the esthetic point of view has become more subtle and more forceful in the concern that pushes critics to avoid a confusion of moral and artistic judgements’ (p. 306). The ‘artist’s freedom’ may have been more complete by the 1920s, and this meant that they could pursue their work without the pressure to conform to certain patterns and social expectations. And yet writers and artists still faced the threat of censorship, and here Rosenblatt refers to the spate of censorship incidents between 1928 and 1930 in England, which indicates a lingering tension carried over across the centuries. And which was also leading some artists, Rosenblatt believed, to hold themselves above any claim to society whatsoever, setting themselves up as the arbiter of what was and wasn’t art – even going so far as to privatise the aesthetic experience, as in the cinematic societies in London whose members formed the only audience of films shown (often on Sundays), and which may well have been suppressed or censored if they had been shown in public theatres (p. 308).

What Rosenblatt came to see was that what was needed was a society which took the education of its young people in aesthetic experiences seriously, and which in turn would enable a more fluid integration of the artist into society, able to pursue their art regardless of its ‘subject matter’. The public needed to see that art was different from real life, and that judgements needed to be organic to the kind of material in front of them. This emphasis on education came to full fruition in the mid-1930s, when Rosenblatt was commissioned to write a sustained work on the topic for the US Progressive Education Association’s Commission on Human Relations, published as Literature as Exploration in 1938, and which went through five editions, the last of which appeared in 1995. And then throughout her university career, which ended with her death in 2005, Rosenblatt was a tireless campaigner for a literacy in American Education that concentrated on the capacity of the reader (and by extension anyone engaging with any kind of art) to have deep, personal experiences of art that engaged the whole person, in which the experience of ‘fine form’ entails the appreciation of the organic unity of an artwork (or lack thereof). The followers of art for art’s sake ‘painfully understood that the majority of the public was incapable of perceiving esthetic values’, and that it tended to support a work of art based on its contiguity with a specific philosophy or value system (p. 307). Thus, only

when we have reared a generation of readers capable of making [a] conscious evaluation of their artistic experience, capable of understanding when they are carrying a practical judgement and when they are responding directly to the entire work of art, the complete ideal of the followers of art for art’s sake will be realized. (p. 309)

Throughout the twentieth century Rosenblatt returned over and over again to the Victorian art for art’s sake movement in determining her ongoing theoretical and practical decisions – many of which helped formulate the Steinhardt School’s English Education programme at NYU. Her study, although similar to contemporary cultural studies in many ways, differs crucially in its conscious and persistent reflexivity, and in the ability of the academic to send forth her own opinion about how her studies relate to the contemporary world in decisive, persuasive, and even polemical ways.

The tendency for historicist critics to inadvertently seal their material in the context in which they locate it has a paralysing effect on this conscious methodology which we would do well to ponder more closely. Translating portions of Rosenblatt’s work for my own PhD has helped me to see that some of the problems late-Victorian writers experienced are recurring in similar guises today: most notably for me as a life model, in the thoroughly underexplored and ambiguous way depictions of erotic experiences are perceived by the public at large: are they art or not; should they form a role in sex education or not, etc.? The ‘aesthetic experience’ remains an important area of scholarly enquiry – as an historical and social phenomenon to be analysed culturally and contextually; but also as a universal quality of human experience that has pedagogical implications in public policy. The forthcoming Being Human Festival, for instance, is a wonderful opportunity for engaging with the public on issues in the arts and humanities that affect them in the most intimate of ways.

As Rosenblatt discovered and re-affirmed in 2004, ‘language [and art] engages the whole person and can enable us to reach out beyond ourselves as we make the choices that compose our lives’.[1] But as Britain moves precariously forward into the future, balancing policy decisions on top of lurches toward anti-democratic and sceptical ways of seeing the world and other people, the role of academics, and especially of ourselves as Victorianists who have such a wealth of human experience before us, is becoming increasingly clear: reflexive scholarship, broad-brush vision as well as contextual, microcosmic detail, and the ability to help policy makers translate big ideas into meaningful application for people’s day-to-day lives – all these things are part and parcel of the twenty-first century academia Rosenblatt helped to forge and was lucky enough to witness in its infancy, reflecting as she always did, on the legacy of the late-Victorian art for art’s sake commitment.

[1] Louise M. Rosenblatt, Making Meaning With Texts: Selected Essays (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005), p. ix.


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