Joseph Lavery

Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in the Humanities

20102011 Forum on Virtuality

Joseph Lavery

Comparative Literature

The Form of Ethics in British Aestheticism

This project reads the text of British aestheticism in the light of psychoanalytic theories of desire, aesthetics and ethics, as proposed in recent work by the theorists of the Ljubljana school. Alenka Zupančič has argued for the importance of ethical categories to aesthetic thinking, since both aesthetics and ethics are discourses for mediating desire. The famous aestheticist proclamation of “art for art’s sake”, far from suggesting the apparent remoteness of art from a logic of ethics, can be seen as gesturing towards something similar – the generation of an ethical responsibility – a “sake” – for art.

Proceeding through readings of Pater, Wilde and Swinburne, I argue that the loose conception of art that they shared is a logic of desire with as much in common with ethical thinking as aesthetics, and that what is sometimes name the “autonomy” of the artwork means, for these writers, desire mediated by responsibility.