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Victorian Sex Rebels and Atheists: How Brave Artists Shook Up Prudish Mores

How artists flouted religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, industrialism, and sexism with in-your-face challenges of eroticism and sexual identity.

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While we continue to debate issues of sexual identity and gender roles even now, Victorian rebels made significant progress in reshaping what was acceptable in the culture. Their efforts laid the groundwork for future campaigns for women’s liberation, gay rights and political opportunities for the poor. “[It] takes a great deal of dedication and a desire to carve—almost alone—completely new paths,” Lutz points out. “Today, especially with the Internet, one can always find community. We don’t have to go it alone the way some of these artists did.”

However, what stands out to Lutz as perhaps the most interesting facet of these iconoclasts, along with their evolving eroticism and self-defined morality, was their willingness to collaborate. “They wanted to make art, poetry, and pornography with others,” she explains. “They wanted to share their creative space ideas and spaces, work collectively to make something important, something beautiful, something that would break taboos.” It is this, she believes, that is their enduring gift to future generations.

“Many artists feel a need to step outside their current society’s understandings about right and wrong,” Lutz explains. “They need a larger view. They want to stand on the margins and survey their culture from the outsider’s vantage. Breaking the rules makes us look at the rules more closely and perhaps consider [they] need expanding or abolishing.

“The rebels’ legacy is their love of collaboration. It’s only in the past few years that artists have begun to see the value of making things together. This is something we still have to learn from the Victorians.”

Oscar Wilde once noted that “aesthetics are higher than ethics.’”

Says Lutz, “The rebels remind us that sex, like art, required going past good and evil. That is the permanent gift from this group of rogues and outlaws from Victorian England to us in modern society.”

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