Given that William Dean Howells was the leading spokesperson for literary realism in the late nineteenth century, critics have traditionally cited him for his failure to define a formal aesthetic theory, or, more recently, they have located such a theory in its very absence. Neither view acknowledges how Howells appropriated a central tenet of genteel society-domesticity-as ground for a pragmatic appraisal of fine art under the impress of capitalism. Especially in his fictional descriptions of painting and illustration, Howells delineates how disinterested rationales of fine art like aestheticism depend upon the aesthetic equivalent of the sexual double-standard: women are valorized as moral authorities but denigrated as artists so that men can make art without the stigma of commercialism. Through doubly gendered artists and feminized artistic practices, Howells critiques the capitalist logic that reduces aesthetics to an epiphenomenon of the market or to self-referential theories of the artwork. He demonstrates instead that art objects are ultimately defined by the ethical affiliations they bear to other social and aesthetic practices. In his criticism and fiction of the late 1880s and early 1890s, then, femininity emerges as a crucial rhetorical strategy that enabled Howells to represent and rationalize the paradoxical nature of fine art in capitalist society.
- Copyright 2000 The Regents of the University of California