Date of Award
Master of Arts
Diane Al Shihabi
This thesis explores the economic, social, and semiotic landscape surrounding the Aesthetic Movement in Britain that aided in the birth of what may be one of the first expressions of a recognizable queer sub-culture: namely a culture of queer domesticity in the nascent modern movement. This research argue that this queer expression was hidden in plain sight, deftly embedded into the complex construction of the late nineteenth-century interior, in a meta-language of objects and materiality that was symbolic and readable. Erwin Panofsky’s studies of iconography and iconology, as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of taste and social class-stratification provide the framework from which a material culture analysis of this queer domesticity can begin. Objects and images analyzed have been gathered through the online archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as through in-depth literature review of both period and contemporary sources.
The Aesthetic Movement was uniquely placed in European design history to manifest the ideal conditions necessary to birth the beginnings of a queer domesticity in the nineteenth century that would continue to develop in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spanning the decades of the 1870s to the 1890s, the Aesthetic Movement was sandwiched between the twilight of the Victorian era and the rise of early modern movements such as Art Nouveau. Yet, from a contemporary perspective, it was simultaneously anachronistic, yet presciently forward in its design intent, as it looked towards traditional forms of design but with a burgeoning modernist sensibility. The Aesthetic Movement advocated for a moral re-valuation of beauty, in favor of “Art for arts sake”, with Lambourne and Stankiewicz both arguing that the movement elevated beauty to a spiritual (or self-actualizing), rather than secular level, wherein Aesthetes firmly believed that one could “accrue spiritual benefits” from correctly interpreting aesthetic forms. Both Stankiewicz and Lambourne approach the word “spiritual” as something separate from a simple religious preference. Rather “spiritual” in an Aesthetic period context was used to convey the appreciation of art and intellectual growth in these capacities, ultimately leading to the betterment of self.
In the nineteenth-century, the British home and the domestic sphere were places of education and culture, both enforcing and re-producing the cultural norms necessary to support a class-stratified, gender-divided, industrialized landscape, while firmly establishing a “cult of domesticity” with its own particular rules of engagement. By the time the Aesthetic Movement arrived, British polite society was well acquainted with the idea that an interior, or the amalgamation of objects within it, shaped the minds of individuals who inhabited these spaces, often claiming or aspiring to elevated levels of taste and culture. Thus, with the rise of the Aesthetic Movement, and its hedonistic doctrine of beauty, the minds of the middle to upper class were already primed to receive new ideas through the semiotic language of objects, in this case being a nascent conception of early-modern queer identity and domesticity.
Collin Douglas Powell
Powell, Collin Douglas, "Domesticity + queer semiotics in the aesthetic movement" (2019). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 17544.