To understand exactly what makes the artists of 19th-century Britain, the age of Queen Victoria, radical, one must not first point at the art of that period but its economy.
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What few people understand is that industrial production was completely new to the world. That's important for two reasons. One, it transformed the structure of time. Under the agrarian order, time was attached to the seasons. Under the industrial order, it was tied to the working (or factory) hours, which remained the same in spring, summer, fall, and winter.
The other impact was the mass production of luxuries. In the past, sugar, for example, was only for the rich; in the industrial period, this changed. It became available to all classes.
The artist under these unprecedented conditions had to conform their work, and the materials they worked with, to this new temporality and class organization. This is what radical means in Seattle Art Museum's Victorian Radicals exhibit, which has 150 paintings, stained glass, sculptures, and what have you, from some of the leading art movements of the period. The artists represented in the show (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Kate Elizabeth Bunce, and so on) were responding to an economic reality that was historically unique and specific.
This is why an adequate appreciation of the exhibit requires that one keep in mind—as they examine this sculpture (Monstrance by John Francis Bentley) or that stained glass (Saint Mark by Edward Burne-Jones)—that the cultural structure from which the works emerged did not exist before the 18th century.
Also, the defining ideology of the Victorian age, progress, had never been known or experienced until that time. The idea that world history moved in one direction (from primitive to advanced) is only about 300 years old. We see it as normal (check out our smartphones); they, the Victorians, saw perpetual progress for the first time in human history. If you miss the radical newness of this kind of society, then these works will not impress you. Indeed, they may even bore you.
And this is exactly what happened to the Seattle Times' art critic Gary Faigin. He walked into the exhibit with the wrong kind of mind and yawned at what a properly prepared mind would easily see as violent cultural shocks all around. For example, he described one of the exhibit's exquisite objects, Chamberlain Casket, as "a painfully kitschy... hodgepodge of metal boats, figurines and medallions [that] are meant to evoke medieval reliquaries..." This is tantamount to saying that one does not like reading Shakespeare because it's full of clichés.
The humans of our times are so used to kitsch. But for the Victorians, it was completely new. It was radical. This is the mind-set the exhibit wants us to enter; one that had no past, only the future. The Victorian age is the cradle of our post-post-postmodern times.