Ruskin, Wilde, Satire, and the Birth of Aestheticism

"In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential." -Oscar Wilde, in The Chameleon 

Looking past the often hyperbolic and flippant tone of Oscar Wilde's aesthetic theories in "The Decay of Lying" (text), one finds that many of them copy or closely resemble those of John Ruskin. This similarity presents a peculiar challenge: how could Ruskin, so closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and concerned with society's relation to art, influence an aesthetic movement that attempted to divorce art from anything but itself? Looking purely at the content of Wilde's aesthetic theories, one cannot find any practical departure from Ruskin. But if one measures Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" by its form and technique, Wilde indeed presents a "new aestheticism": the virtue of his wit and style trump concerns over the originality of his ideas. Examining Ruskin, Wilde and aestheticism in terms of the sincerity of their dialogue poses important implications for discussions of the artists associated with each thinker. The Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood associated with Ruskin reflects his sincerity in their beliefs and works. Similarly, Wilde helped to foster the self-aware pursuit of shock and escape from bourgeois standards that characterized so many Aesthetes and Decadents.

Thus although the themes and techniques used by each group shared many similarities, the great chasm of sincerity lay between them, informing their goals and the products of their art. Aestheticism was not an artistic conviction in the same sense that the Pre-Raphaelitism was, but rather functioned as a mode of viewing art which might be picked up and later dropped on whim. Wilde himself held strong socialist beliefs, as evidenced in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" published two years after "Decay." In "The Soul of Man" and other essays, Wilde puts forth theories that seem to directly contradict those of his "new aestheticism," which leads many to criticize him for not having a consistent body of aesthetic criticism. But in fact those seemingly contradictory statements merely clarify the ideas beneath the surface of "The Decay" and often bring him ever closer to Ruskin. It is precisely this tension between the exaggerated ideas of Wilde's Aestheticism and the sober ones he puts forth elsewhere that defines Aestheticism.

In his 1889 mock-dialogue "The Decay of Lying," Wilde speaks of four major points in his "new aesthetics," a sort of manifesto for the aesthetic movement. Wilde not only states the principles of the "new aestheticism" in the "The Decay of Lying," but uses the form of the work itself as a demonstration of the principles of such an aestheticism. The importance of form stems from Theophile Gautier, who proposed "Une belle forme est une belle idée." For Gautier, art produced by spontaneity would not stand up over time. He compared poetry to the work of a sculptor, where the ideal poem should be a concrete, chiseled product. Wilde's essay lives up to this standard quite well with its carefully measured words. The originality of Wilde's form makes the piece an important one, not the originality of his ideas, which are in fact mostly borrowed.

The piece takes the form of a dialogue between two characters, Vivian and Cyril, named after Wilde's children. The conversational form riffs on the Platonic dialogue. Wilde presents Vivian as the much more at ease, witty and eloquent of the two; we may assume that Vivian serves as a mouthpiece for Wilde's Aesthetic theories. Cyril acts as a foil, responding with appropriate Victorian shock to all of Vivian's statements, and in one place actually interrupts Vivian mid-sentence. Wilde's choice to have the character of Vivian speak for him adds yet another layer, in addition to the hyperbole and humor of the piece, to the difficulty in parsing out his actual opinions. The use of Vivian guarantees that Wilde could deflect any criticisms towards the character rather than himself. Wilde could have chosen to present his ideas in standard essay form, or to insert himself in Vivian's place. Wilde's use of his children's names suggests, though, that he in a sense "gave birth" to the characters and the ideas that they toss about.

Wilde uses hyperbole and a humorous tone to dilute the appearance of validity in his aesthetic theories and increase their radical appearance. Indeed, at first glance, the four points he offers seem little more than decadent solipsism:

Art never expresses anything but itself
All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals
Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life; the same for Nature
Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art

Perhaps the most confusing statement of the four is the idea that "art never expresses anything but itself," a paraphrase of the idea of Gautier's "l'art pour l'art.". What Vivian probably means by this statement comes from Gautier: "Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless, everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory." Wilde's Vivian echoes Gautier quite closely: "As lying as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art." More succinctly, in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he states that "all Art is quite useless." Instead of art, one must look to the architecture or music of an age to understand it; this idea seems to come from Ruskin's work in The Stones of Venice where he attempts to measure the health of civilizations by their architecture.

Wilde himself cannot possibly believe that art should not affect us in any way, as that would negate any desire to create or view art. Wilde allows Cyril a rare rebuttal against Vivian, in which he points out that no one would re-read any unmoving book. Vivian's statement exaggerates Wilde's belief that the public influences artists and thus dilutes their creations. He states in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" that "the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them they leave them alone." Wilde compares art to the practice of science and philosophy, where it would be ridiculous to suggest that the public should hold any sway over the methods of experts.

Furthermore, Wilde would say in his essay on "Art and the Handicraftsman":
People often talk as if there was an opposition between what is beautiful and what is useful. There is no opposition to beauty except ugliness: all things are either beautiful or ugly, and utility will be always on the side of the beautiful thing, because beautiful decoration is always an expression of the use you put a thing to and the value placed on it.
Clearly, Wilde does not indeed believe that use and beauty are mutually exclusive. Rather, he argues against measuring art by its external usefulness, and in this, follows Ruskin's thought. Ruskin vehemently criticized the equation of art and usefulness upheld for much of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Adam Smith, David Hume and Henry Fuseli all advanced theories supporting the idea of usefulness as an aesthetic quality. Hume offers the example of the horse, believing horses beautiful to man because of their usefulness. Ruskin stands by the argument already established by Edmund Burke to the contrary. Burke offers the counterexample of the pig's snout: though each fold, hair, and nostril of the snout somehow contributes to its function, no one considers the pig beautiful.

By "Art never expresses anything but itself," Wilde in truth wishes to emphasize the importance of beauty as a goal. As George P. Landow points out in "Aesthetes, Decadents, and the Idea of Art for Art's Sake," "Ruskin, whom most commentators take to be the bête noir of the movement, turns out to have advanced a complex theological argument for Art for Art's Sake before mid-century!" Before Ruskin experienced a loss of faith, he had developed a theory that art justifies its own existence through beauty; beauty is an end in itself and the ultimate goal of great art. Ruskin states: ""Ideas of beauty are among the noblest which can be presented to the human mind, invariably exalting and purifying it according to their degree; and it would appear that we are intended by the Deity to be constantly under their influence..." Because God infuses all things in nature with himself, which are disproportionately more beautiful than deformed, any experience of beauty relates to God.

The obvious difference between Wilde and the early Ruskin lies in Ruskin's reliance on God as a justification for beauty. But even considering the difference in underlying justification, the practical goal remains the same: beauty is its own end.

The second point on life and Nature will be left until after discussing the others, as it is there that a rift between Wilde and Ruskin might exist. ...


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