Sweetness and Light

(Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dressed as Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, at a fancy dress ball on 12 May 1842).

Nineteenth century Britain was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, an age of technological innovation that brought a huge amount of wealth and social change to the populace. However the increase in manufacturing purely utilitarian goods also led to a decline in the production of art, a fact that alarmed the poet and educator Matthew Arnold.

Arnold was perturbed by the ignorance of the Victorian middle classes and was the first writer in English to attribute the word “philistine” to a specific kind of person who declares that they are disinterested in the arts. Philistines are incapable or unwilling to appreciate the virtues of the arts as they have no practical or monetary purpose.

The stereotype of the philistine is still broadly true in this country today, but this observable character was engendered by social and economic change. The English middle classes were people who had earned rather than inherited their wealth through the mercantile system. Consequently they were comfortable with their lifestyles and their outlook on life had become distinctly narrow. Many had moved into non descript towns and developed a dull and uniform philosophy that we now characterise as provincial and suburban. Arnold disliked this smugness and snobbery, and the obsession with materialism. He found it vulgar and insisted that the creative and imaginative industries still had a place in a mechanised world, if only to remind these people that they were still human and emotional beings.

Arnold maintained that a country without culture is a dark and forbidding place. A country that is purely designed to cater for the functional needs of its people is just empty and meaningless. He argued that there should be a place for the sublime, and everyone in society should have the opportunity to access it. He loathed the pedantic nature of education, and believed that a more enlightened and liberal approach would improve the dire state of English culture.

The English middle classes have always been renowned as a people reluctant to reveal any emotion and deride the “sentimental”. However sentimental has negative connotations in the modern definition of the word. Sentimental in its original definition just means art that focuses upon real emotion. Charles Dickens was a novelist who revived the tradition of the sentimentalists to appeal to the nobler and finer aspects of the human condition. Wordsworth and Coleridge were the poets who set the precedent with the publication of “The Lyrical Ballads”.

Modern manifestations of sentimental art deliberately manipulate the audience for financial gain, and these practitioners have more in common with the cynics of the Victorian age. Unfortunately Arnold`s pronouncements have been ignored and cynicism, philistinism and the prevailing notion that “stoicism” should be encouraged has meant that England has not innovated artistically.

It must not be forgotten that the stoic philosophers declared themselves indifferent to pain and placed reason as the highest virtue. This has meant that the majority of the population has to endure an existence devoid of beauty and that any attempt made to ameliorate the situation is just stifled or mocked by the modern day philistines.

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