In this major reinterpretation of the Victorian Aesthetic Movement, Linda Dowling argues that such classic works of Victorian art writing such as Ruskin's Stones of Venice of Morris's Lectures on Art or Wilde's Critic as Artist become wholly intelligible only within the larger ideological context of the Whig aesthetic tradition.

The Vulgarization of Art explores the tragic consequences for the Aesthetic Movement when a repressed and irresolvable conflict between Shaftesbury's assumption of "aristocratic soul" and the Victorian ideal of "aesthetic democracy" repeatedly shatters the hopes of such writers as Ruskin, Morris, Pater, and Wilde for social transformation through the aesthetic sense.