A Critique of Dark Academia: The Hunt for Beauty

Each fall, my annual dark academia obsession rears its ugly head. Something about the new school year, the leaves withering away, the rain-slicked sidewalks and cloudy days, the coziness of big sweaters… As the days get shorter, I find it easier and easier to sit at my desk and never leave. I tell myself that genius doesn’t come from nothing, that school is incredibly important for my future, but really, it stems from an old habit of using schoolwork as a way of masking symptoms of mental illness. Dark academia, indeed. 

For those of you who have never heard of it, dark academia is an aesthetic carefully curated by people on Tumblr, TikTok and other forms of social media. It tends toward the Gothic and vaguely Victorian. If you’ve ever seen Dead Poets Society or read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, you know what I’m talking about, as they are staples in the dark academia community. If you haven’t, think beautiful wood interiors, dusty old books, glowering clouds, skulls, crows and an overabundance of tweed. Throw in some romanticization of art, overwork and madness (and I use that word very, very loosely), and you’ve got dark academia. 

In this article, I will be discussing the romanticization of art and the attempt to disengage from the present in the dark academia community. In future articles, I’ll turn my attention to dark academia’s obsession with overwork and madness, so stay tuned!

A lot of dark academia stems from an obsession with English literature. The Romantic poets, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald are thrown around frequently. As someone in English Lit, I get it. There’s something magical about stumbling across a quote or passage that just seems to get you. The problem isn’t reading these works; the problem is that members of the dark academia community often engage with these writers uncritically. 

Oscar Wilde is a perfect example of this. His work and public persona is a huge part of queer culture, especially his aestheticism and his famous arrest for “public indecency.” His work is incredibly fun and engaging; if you haven’t read The Importance of Being Earnest yet, you should. His near-godlike status in online dark academia communities makes sense, since a lot of social media platforms like Tumblr and TikTok are safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. However, Oscar Wilde was also racist and his depictions of women indicate a deep-rooted misogyny. While enjoying literature, it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that the English canon is a tradition of eurocentrism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and more. 

Like Oscar Wilde, dark academia worships the beautiful but is often uncritical of where that beauty lies. Take Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as an example, a book I loved in high school. In The Secret History, an elite group of Greek and Roman Studies students perform a Bacchanalia (a Roman festival that celebrates the god of freedom and intoxication) and accidentally murder a farmer while in the throes of ecstasy. 

One of the most famous quotes from this novel is, “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” (A conflation with Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime, but I digress.) Setting aside the many issues in this book — including but not limited to sexism and internalized homophobia — at its core this book is about obsession with “beauty,” a selfish beauty that harms others.

The tunnel-visioned chase for beauty has long been an issue with the arts. Art is autonomous, free from biographical or political concerns. Or so various theorists and artists claim. While I think that separating work from an artist’s intentions is important, we must also acknowledge that art isn’t made in a vacuum. By creating, artists engage with the world around them, and that includes the political sphere. 

Art and political awareness are not mutually exclusive. Too often we see the artist figure as isolated, separate from society and willfully so. That depiction isn’t historically accurate to begin with: Percy Shelley wrote poetry about the Peterloo Massacre, Virginia Woolf was a feminist, and Shakespeare used his plays to critique positions of power. The artist is not and cannot be separated from the times they lived in.

The tendency with groups like the dark academia community is to romanticize the past while ignoring the future. With the current political climate, it’s easier to embrace nostalgia. However, academia cannot and should not exist away from the present and its troubles. We learn so that we can help and improve the world around us. We must find beauty around us, and if it’s not there, we must create a world that includes more beauty, both aesthetically and politically.

Part two of this series: "A Critique of Dark Academia: The Romanticization of Overwork"

Part three of this series: "A Critique of Dark Academia: The Cultivation of Relentless Focus."