Aestheticism And The Erotics Of Pedagogy
Informed by liberal political philosophy, aesthetic critics such as Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, and Oscar Wilde urged people to engage with art, arguing that because each individual had an unerring innate capacity to make aesthetic judgments, no one needed experts to validate their critical claims. However, when the emergent middleclasses began to judge art, they unexpectedly employed standards that the aesthetes deplored. In response, the aesthetes seemed to abandon their liberalism, gladly becoming authoritarian teachers whose textbooks sought to convert the vulgar to specific critical methods and tastes. This dissertation argues that the aesthetes actually regretted their prescriptive roles, and that their texts are structured by their ambivalence about teaching specific ways of reading texts. Even as aestheticist handbooks impart principles, they imagine scenes wherein tutors and textbooks would become unnecessary because the intended student has a repressed knowledge of aesthetic criticism. These forgotten tenets emerge into consciousness when the aspirant connoisseur has a deeply affecting erotic encounter with an uncannily animate art object. Through these queer fantasies, the aesthetes preserve the liberal ideal of individuals who judges solely through their own authorization. Reading Pater's The Renaissance, Plato and Platonism, and Gaston de Latour, I reveal his fear that modern educators can only withhold the love that succors students or desire them with an excessive ardor that threatens their autonomy by destroying the borders between subjects. Pater suggests would-be aesthetes should avoid dangerous professors by seeking art's love. I then argue that in Lee's Belcaro, professional aestheticians are cast as prudish protectionists who teach abstract aesthetic theories in order to distract their audiences from the erotic immediacy of art's materiality. Lee appropriates the Gothic novel's plots of religious conversion in order to imagine a teacherless education in which statues at the Vatican Museum seduce a child and implant formalist aestheticist doctrines into its mind. Finally, I look to Wilde's "The Critic as Artist," "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." and The Picture of Dorian Gray to examine Wilde's fancy that artworks enable critics to gain access to aestheticist knowledge they have biologically inherited.
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