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Anxious Performances: Aestheticism, The Art Gallery And The Ambulatory Geographies Of Late Nineteenth-Century London AndrewStephenson What performance where will . . . compel a radical rethinking of the psychological presuppositions of gender identity and sexuality? What performance where will compel a reconsideration of the place and the stability of the masculine and the feminine? And what kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire. —Judith Butler (1990) Within dominant accounts of the formation of modern sexual identities in late nineteenth-century London, the role of the art gallery in providing a sympathetic venue for the liberating visibility that Aestheticism offered to young women and to lesbians and gay men has remained largely unexplored. Given the imaginative centrality within Aestheticism of flamboyant sartorial styles and extravagant performativity; given its privileging of "feminine" fashionable display and the pleasures of conspicuous consumption and given its sanctioning of "feminized" homoeroticism and overt theatricality for men and women, perhaps surprisingly, the social and sexual dynamics of the art gallery have remained hidden and underexposed.1 Using recent theories of performativity as outlined byJudith Buder and Peggy Phelan as well as drawing on studies of late Victorian sexual desire by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Richard Dellamora, I shall argue that the Aesthetic art gallery (or art exhibitions that showed work by leading members of English Aestheticism in careVictorian Review (2001) A. Stephenson fully installed and design co-ordinated aesthetic environments) constituted a crucial discursive space within which the fluidity of modern sexual identities were compellingly dramatized. As art critics and writers aligned the aesthetic experience with imagined empathetic unions across artworks and between viewers, and as they validated particular types of public masquerade and exhibitionism as signs of an aesthete sensibility, the art gallery registered as a fashionable space in which to encounter alternative interpretive communities. Interpreting the art gallery experience as a liberating and empowering form of ritual developing at a historical moment when modern notions of sexuality were in the process of being defined, artists, art writers and spectators came to acknowledge the formative role that pleasurable identifications and sexual desire played in constituting identity and its social repertoires. Within public performances, subtleties of bodily deportment, gesture, eye contact and dress were carefully perused as part of a daring and self-fabricated act that outwardly signified inner aesthetic sentiments carrying resonances of secret and repressed sexual desires. Given the status of the gallery space as a location for exhibiting modern social and sexual manners, it is apparent that gender became increasingly approached not as a fixed binary of biological or anatomical oppositions, but in more fluid terms and open to dimensions of theatricality: whatJudith Butler has termed gender as "a corporeal style, an act, as it were, which [was] both intentional and performative, where "performative"suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning" (139). Taking the art gallery as a revealing symbolic site, I shall propose that in Aestheticism's radical rethinking of gender norms as historically shifting and culturally contingent, it marked out a significant disruption of earlier Victorian disciplinary and proprietorial regimes. In its challenging of the "natural" and the "conventional," Aestheticism's sexual politics in a distinctively modern way also choreographed revised homo-heterosexual categories and re-textualized male and female bodies, gay and straight, in terms that had previously been considered perverse within the public imaginary. Significantly, it was at this moment that the "dangerous sexualities" of the "New volume 27 number 2 Anxious Performances Woman," the lesbian and homosexual dandy were constructed in the literature of Western modernity as emblematic; as resonant and revealing figures that questioned traditional social roles from positions on the margins of urban life.2 Alongside these repositionings, as earlier notions of gendered spheres centred on differences between "masculine"/ public/ urban and "feminine"/ private/ suburban were shown to be less emphatic, Aestheticism initiated new metropolitan social circuits for women and gay men to be seen in. The ambulatory spaces of the West End of London, once forbidden and dangerous territories for single women earlier in the nineteenth-century and always precarious locations for lesbians and homosexual men at any time...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-19
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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