Aestheticism & Oscar Wilde

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson describes the key ideas and influences of the artistic movement, Aestheticism. It also examines the role of one of Aestheticism's most important figures, Oscar Wilde, in shaping the movement.

Introduction to Aestheticism

When Oscar Wilde famously asserted in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that 'all art is quite useless', he was not looking at some painting of Elvis on velvet or a rendition of the Mona Lisa in macaroni noodles. No, instead, Wilde was proclaiming what would become the motto of the aestheticism movement worldwide and would make himself perhaps its greatest icon.

Aestheticism is an artistic movement of the late 19th century committed to one idea: 'art for art's sake.' For the aesthete, a follower of aestheticism, art should serve no purpose other than its own enjoyment. Art is not meant to instruct or uplift. It is not a moral instrument meant to improve its audiences. Sounds pretty logical, right? But at the height of the Victorian era, this was a revolutionary idea.

The Victorians, you see, were all about self-improvement. With the rise of the middle class and the waning of the aristocracy, the Victorians believed that industriousness and commitment were all that was needed for the upwardly mobile young man to succeed in a modernizing Europe. And where access to higher education was largely limited to the elite, it was art--and books especially--that filled the void. The aspiring middle classes used books to not only to educate themselves in the skills they would need to succeed in the working world, but also, they believed, to cultivate their moral sensibilities, to become refined both in mind and spirit.

Not so for the aesthetes, however. The principles of aestheticism rejected the idea of 'improving' art, the idea that art should be used exclusively for moral and intellectual instruction. Instead, the Aesthetes built upon the ideas of late 18th century German Romantic philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and J.W. Goethe, who spurned the Age of Enlightenment's emphasis on utilitarianism, or the idea that a thing must be in some way useful in order for it to have value. For these German Romantics, and the aesthetes who would come after, art's value lies not in its usefulness, but in its beauty and in the pleasure it gives.

Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray, and the Flaneur

Perhaps no one is more closely aligned with Aestheticism than Oscar Wilde. The Irish poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist created some of the most memorable literary works of the aesthetic movement, including plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, and Lady Windermere's Fan. Wilde's most important work within this movement, however, is his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Significantly, Wilde also lived the aesthetic ideals that he helped to create. For Wilde and his fellow Aesthetes, there simply was no other choice: life is the greatest of all works of art, they believed, and the goal of the Aesthete is at once to savor the experience of beauty, sensation, and pleasure and to become such an experience oneself, to make of one's life a spectacle, an image of wonder and interest for others.

Enter the flaneur. Similar to the English 'dandy,' the flaneur was the Aesthete's version of the fashion plate, a guy who exists to see and to be seen. He attends all the best parties; he sets standard for all that is cool and fashionable, all that the beautiful people should do, want, and be.

The title character in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect example of the flaneur. He is young, beautiful, and impeccably stylish. But Dorian Gray has one more thing going for him: he cannot age. So while all the world around him grows old and tired and (ironically) gray, Dorian remains the object of admiration and speculation, a miracle of enduring young beauty.

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