Author(s): Jordan Kistler (King’s College London)
In this article I consider the concepts of “work” and “production” in the life and poetry of Arthur O’Shaughnessy, viewed in terms of the conflicting aesthetic theories of Socialist art-for-society and Aesthetic art-for-art. In order to express his discontent with his “day job” as a naturalist at the British Museum, O’Shaughnessy embraced the revolution of non-work offered by the Aesthetes, as they affected an aloof aristocracy of art, removed from the bourgeois concerns of the consumerist public. Adopting this self-aggrandising language, O’Shaughnessy undermined the importance of the ordinary world, and with it the significance of his own failures in his work at the museum.
However, his most famous poem, which begins ‘we are the music makers’, evinces a commitment to socially engaged literature, a desire rebuked by the Aesthete’s emphasis on “useless” art. In his support of “art for humanity” O’Shaughnessy aligned himself with the aesthetic theories of men such as William Morris. The tension between these two conflicting aesthetic theories is expressed in moments of surprising violence in O’Shaughnessy’s verse, in which the Aesthetic figure of the solitary artist is persecuted for his difference. It is only in his final volume of poetry that O’Shaughnessy was able to reconcile these theories and resolve this tension by redefining art as ‘work’, with an emphasis on the act of production. In this act of redefinition he finally accepts himself as a worker: not a mere cog in the bureaucratic system, but a producer of beauty. It is in the act of production that O’Shaughnessy found use, and in the redefinition of art as his career, he was able to come to a middle ground between art for humanity and art for art’s sake.
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