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Critical Essays
Oscar Wilde's Aesthetics
The philosophical foundations of Aestheticism were formulated in the eighteenth century by Immanuel Kant, who spoke for the autonomy of art. Art was to exist for its own sake, for its own essence or beauty. The artist was not to be concerned about morality or utility or even the pleasure that a work might bring to its audience. Aestheticism was supportedin Germany by J. W. von Goethe and in England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle.
Benjamin Constant first used the phrase l'art pour l'art (French, meaning "art for art," or "art for art's sake") in 1804; Victor Cousin popularized the words that became a catch-phrase for Aestheticism in the 1890s. French writers such as Théophile Gautier and Charles-Pierre Baudelairecontributed significantly to the movement.
Oscar Wilde did not invent Aestheticism, but he was a dramatic leader in promoting the movement near the end of the nineteenth century. Wilde was especially influenced as a college student by the works of the English poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne and the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The English essayist Walter Pater, an advocate of "art for art'ssake," helped to form Wilde's humanistic aesthetics in which he was more concerned with the individual, the self, than with popular movements like Industrialism or Capitalism. Art was not meant to instruct and should not concern itself with social, moral, or political guidance.
Like Baudelaire, Wilde advocated freedom from moral restraint and the limitations of society. This point of viewcontradicted Victorian convention in which the arts were supposed to be spiritually uplifting and instructive. Wilde went a step further and stated that the artist's life was even more important than any work that he produced; his life was to be his most important body of work.
The most important of Wilde's critical works, published in May 1891, is a volume titled Intentions. It consists of four essays:"The Decay of Lying," "Pen, Pencil and Poison," "The Critic as Artist," and "The Truth of Masks." These and the contemporary essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" affirm Wilde's support of Aestheticism and supply the philosophical context for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
"The Decay of Lying" was first published in January 1889. Wilde called it a "trumpet against the gate of dullness"in a letter to Kate Terry Lewis. The dialogue, which Wilde felt was his best, takes place in the library of a country house in Nottinghamshire. The participants are Cyril and Vivian, which were the names of Wilde's sons (the latter spelled "Vyvyan"). Almost immediately, Vivian advocates one of the tenets of Wilde's Aestheticism: Art is superior to Nature. Nature has good intentions but can'tcarry them out. Nature is crude, monotonous, and lacking in design when compared to Art.
According to Vivian, man needs the temperament of the true liar" with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!" Artists with this attitude will not be shackled by sterile facts but will be able to tell beautiful truths that have nothing to dowith fact.
"Pen, Pencil and Poison" was first published in January 1889. It is a biographical essay on the notorious writer, murderer, and forger Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who used the pen name "Janus Weathercock."
Wilde's approach is that Wainewright's criminal activities reveal the soul of a true artist. The artist must have a "concentration of vision and intensity of purpose" that excludemoral or ethical judgment. True aesthetes belong to the "elect," as Wilde calls them in "The Decay of Lying," and are beyond such concerns. As creative acts, there is no significant difference between art and murder. The artist often will conceal his identity behind a mask, but Wilde maintains that the mask is more revealing than the actual face. Disguises intensify the artist's personality....
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