LITERATURE AND ART IN THE YELLOW BOOK: DISTINCTION AS INSUFFICIENT FOR EQUIVALENCE
One’s ears are weary of the voice of the art teacher who sits like the parrot on his perch learning the jargon of the studios, making but poor copy and calling it criticism.
– Aubrey Beardsley, “The Art of Hoarding”.
When I look at the strict physical separation between “Literature” and “Art” in the Yellow Book, I find myself unsatisfied with the argument that it levels them. Sure, it physically separates them. It certainly reinforces the idea that true art is not meant to support literature: it can stand alone. I find myself wondering, though; why is it that when Aubrey Beardsley left the Yellow Book in 1895 and moved to the Savoy, the separation became less strict? That says a lot to me. Beardsley apparently took note of something that was unsatisfactory in the Yellow Book. Instead, we can see the separation in “Literature” and “Art” in the Yellow Book as a tactic that achieved the avant-garde appeal more than it achieved a levelling in artistic value.
I look at Aubrey Beardsley’s quote from “The Art of Hoarding” and it makes me think of the emphasis being placed on rejecting tradition. We know that the Yellow Book aimed to stray as far from tradition as it could. The prospectus, that came out before the publication of its first volume, even says the editors and publishers wanted a departure “as far as may be from the bad old traditions of periodical literature.” This states, in no uncertain
terms, that the Yellow Book is ultimately modern. It is modern in everything from conception to literal physical separation of literature and art. To what extent, then, does the search for the avant-garde inhibit the actual capacity of literature and art to be equated? Shouldn’t we, instead, be placing the two on the same page and allowing artistic and literary value to speak for itself? I think some separation is key. The two should not correspond. Literature and art can remain separate in content but also physically co-exist. This would, at least physically, level them. In Konrad Claes’ “Introduction” to The Late-Victorian Little Magazine, we were introduced to the term “Total Work of Art.” I can see how physically levelling literature and art would, in fact, lend itself to truly levelling them when we consider it as a “Total Work of Art.”
The other important aspect that was crucial to the conception of the Yellow Book was its intent to last. In The Sketch’s 1894 interview with editors Henry Harland and Aubrey Beardsley, the two acknowledged the Yellow Book as, first, “a book, a thing to be put in the library just like any other volume, a complete book.” In order to last, in order to be “distinctive, to be popular in the best and truest sense of the word,” they had to be original. The basis of their popularity was to be predicated on the distinctiveness and originality of the Yellow Book. The separation of literature and art is not primarily to level them, but instead as a means to achieve their goal: in lasting through distinction.