"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.
"The Decay of Lying" and Ruskin's Aesthetic Theories
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 Arti
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...v" 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.
The statement "Life imitates art" again disguises a Ruskinian idea under grand hyperbole. Wilde does subscribe to completely solipsistic view of things here, nor does he suggest that paintings and essays somehow alter the physical world around us. Ruskin, too, fought against the notion that nothing exists in the world except in our minds, as that would negate the actual existence of anything in the world. By "Life imitates art," Wilde in fact means that art instructs us on how to see the outside world. This resembles very closely Ruskin's theory of seeing in Modern Painters, and the relation of the mind to the external world:
The first great mistake that people make in the matter, is the supposition that they must see a thing if it be before their eyes...unless the minds of men are particularly directed to the impressions of sight, objects pass perpetually before the eyes without conveying any impression to the brain at all; and so pass actually unseen, not merely unnoticed, but in the full clear sense of the word unseen. [Modern Painters. Vol. 1, Part 2, Sec. 1, Chap. 2]
The argument that Ruskin presents here, and that Wilde restates in his idiosyncratic way, simply states that seeing is not an act in itself, but relies on the interpretation of visual information. [Modern research into neuro-aesthetics seems to support this claim.] The more cultivated the individual who processes that information, according to Ruskin, the more they may actually see the world around them. He compares the function of the eyes to the ears: ears grow accustomed to a certain level of quiet, and only truly function when aroused by a sounds. Eyes, though constantly provided with stimuli, similarly grow accustomed to a state of seeing and any number of things may pass within our vision without actually being "seen."
Art, according to Ruskin, links humans to the truths of the world. The condition of humans — limited by time and space —means that they "rarely encounter any truth not too great for their capacities, so that almost all truths of the spirit appear to man in the form of grotesques" (Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theories, ch. 5). In this way, poets and artists become prophets, interpreting divine truths for the rest of humanity. Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites would adopt the idea of artist-as-prophet in their attempt to communicate their visions through art.
Wilde's uses the word "lying" in a manner quite apart from the usual negative connotations it carries. He selects a word that will deliberately unsettle the reader in order to surprise him or her into either rejecting the statement with repulsion or embracing it for the repulsion it generates in others. But again, an examination of his explanation of the statement reveals little change from the theories of Ruskin. Also in Modern Painters, Ruskin refutes the idea that truth is beauty and vice versa. For Ruskin, "to make such an equation is to confuse a quality of statements with a quality of matter" (Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theories, ch. 2) By "lying," Wilde seems to mean the same as Ruskin's view of imagination and artist as prophet, as discussed above.
Debate over the idea of truth in art comes out perhaps most strongly in discussions of Nature. Of the aspects of modern life which Ruskin criticized, the distance of men from nature concerned him greatly. Ruskin's Typical theory of beauty clearly stands in opposition to Wilde, as Ruskin's theory depends on an unchanging standard of beauty in Nature that trumps human intervention. Vivian, in "Decay" has to say of Nature:
One touch of Nature may make the whole world kin, but two touches of Nature will destroy any work of Art. If, on the other hand, we regard Nature as the collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no suggestions of her own. Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there. He went moralising about the district, but his good work was produced when he returned, not to Nature but to poetry. Poetry gave him 'Laodamia,' and the fine sonnets, and the great Ode, such as it is. Nature gave him 'Martha Ray' and 'Peter Bell,' and the address to Mr. Wilkinson's spade."
Wilde, though, seems to have no problem with word-painting as practiced by Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Ruskin. His own "Impression du Matin" and "Symphony in Yellow" demonstrate this. The difference is, of course, the subject matter: Wilde's poems describe the urban while Wordsworth's draws inspiration from wandering in nature. Vivian talks about how the fogs of London did not exist until the Impressionists showed them to us. In practical application, both Ruskin and Wilde believe that the artist should not be a mirror to nature, but an interpreter of it. For Ruskin, this means using ones imagination to interpret nature for the viewer. Wilde, in turn, emphasized interpreting city life for the readers of his poems.
The flippant concluding paragraph nearly parodies the rest of the piece:
The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. But of this I think I have spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where "droops the milk-white peacock [56/57] like a ghost," while the evening star "washes the dusk with silver." At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. Come! We have talked long enough.
The verbose Vivian all of a sudden tires of speaking and decides not to explain his last point further, that "Lying...is the proper aim of Art." Instead, he suggests going out into the garden quoting "Summer Night" by Alfred Tennyson. Earlier on in the piece, Vivian rejected Cyril's suggestion that the two sit on the grass outside, and it is unclear what makes him change his mind. One cannot tell if Vivian here dismisses all that he has said before as not enough to keep him indoors forever, or if he thinks he has proven himself so thoroughly that they may now venture outside, or if he simply prefers twilight to daylight and could not recall an appropriate line from Tennyson for the sunshine. Wilde seems to hint here that the reader should not take Vivian too seriously, and especially not confuse Vivian's views with his own verbatim.
From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Aesthetes
Both the differences and similarities between Ruskin and Wilde show in their respective defense of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Ruskin closely associated with members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood such as Rossetti, Hunt and Burne-Jones. Wilde found in the Pre-Raphaelites excellent models for how best to shock and offend the English public. While it would be the topic of another paper to fully trace the many strains of Pre-Raphaelitism that the Aesthetes and Decadents picked up, several in particular evidence the strong relation of thought between the Ruskinian Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes associated with Wilde. Wilde, though he does not name anyone outright, particularly seems to support the Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism that grew out of the early Brotherhood. But while the Pre-Raphaelites viewed their work as a vehicle with which to express their personal convictions, Aestheticism acted as mode to try on and later drop at whim. It is no coincidence that many aesthetes and decadents would later convert to catholicism or become socialists, or as in the case of Wilde, hold the two views simultaneously.
Wilde defended the Pre-Raphaelites in an essay on the "English Renaissance of Art":
Satire, always as sterile as it in shameful and as impotent as it is insolent, paid [the Pre-Raphaelites] that usual homage which mediocrity pays to genius — doing, here as always, infinite harm to the public, blinding them to what is beautiful, teaching them that irreverence which is the source of all vileness and narrowness of life, but harming the artist not at all, rather confirming him in the perfect rightness of his work and ambition. For to disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity, one of the deepest consolations in all moments of spiritual doubtx.
Wilde emphasizes the controversy that the Pre-Raphaelites brought to the artistic discourse. This fits well with his own pursuit of "épater le bourgeois" - shocking the bourgeois. He glosses over the fact that the Pre-Raphaelites at least the early ones genuinely wished to convey religious or moral meaning in their work rather than offend the bourgeois. True, the early Pre-Raphaelites consciously chose to rebel against academic traditions in part to test those traditions' validity, e.g. painting evenly lit pictures in which they filled the entire frame, instead of the academic standard of pyramidal compositions with a single light source. But when John Everett Millais shocked the public with Christ in the House of His Parents, it was because of the working class depiction of the family and the political connotations that went with it.
Whereas for Wilde the criticism of the public signified that the artist's "sanity," Rossetti "was morbidly afraid of criticism...and it was not until Rossetti's collected works were put on display after his death that the European and British public became widely acquainted with his painting" ("Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism"). Wilde was quite offended when he was not asked to contribute to The Yellow Book, an Aesthetic publication which was as satirized and decried as it was famous. Of course, the publishers of The Yellow Book were concerned that Wilde's sexual preferences would in fact cause the magazine too many problems.
Wilde also supports the Pre-Raphaelites in his aversion to the "modernity" of Zola and others. Wilde's use of "modernity" in this case surely does not mean the attempt at forging new artistic modes, but rather realism and depictions of contemporary life. Vivian states in "The Decay of Lying":
[Art] is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith...Sometimes it returns upon its footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in in the archaistic movement of late Greek Art, and the the pre-Raphaelites movement of our own day."
The early Pre-Raphaelites followed the example of Keats and Tennyson when choosing medieval themes for their images. Ruskin, too, admired the gothic age for its architecture and mode of crafting art — a time before industrialization rendered hand-made work almost obsolete. William Morris followed this idea closely in his establishment of his workshop and the creation of the Red House. Wilde echoes Ruskin and Morris in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," which originally appeared in 1891 Fornightly Review: "I have said that the community by means of organisation of machinery will supply the useful things, and that the beautiful things will be made by the individual. This is not merely necessary, but it is the only possible way by which we can get either the one or the other."
This is an instance in which Wilde's Aestheticism and his personal political convictions seem to exist in parallel worlds. In fact they are tied together; Wilde believed that "on the whole, an artist in England gains something by being attacked. His individuality is intensified. He becomes more completely himself." At the same time, the public's misconception of Art "comes from the barbarous conception of authority. It comes from the natural inability of a community corrupted by authority to understand or appreciate Individualism. In a word, it comes from that monstrous and ignorant thing that is called Public Opinion, which, bad and well-meaning as it is when it tries to control action, is infamous and of evil meaning when it tries to control Thought or Art." To Wilde, the power structure of capitalist England stifles the artistic mind so much that one must judge ones work by how much the public disdains it.
The Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelites — particularly Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones — "emphasized themes of eroticized medievalism (or medievalized eroticism) and pictorial techniques that produced a moody, often penumbral atmosphere" another clear departure point for Wilde and the Aesthetics ("Aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism"). But Rossetti was closer to the Romantics in this case than to the Aesthetes in his personal aims: he sincerely believed in the role of artists to express themselves personally. His short story "Hand and Soul" speaks of a visit from an angel who instructs him to paint his soul, which takes the form of a woman. Though this vision seems aesthetic to the core in its emphasis on ones imagination over all else, it also demands that one believe in a soul and express it — something of the most personal nature. Wilde does not 'bare his soul' in "The Decay of Lying" or in his other works, but creates characters to serve as mouthpieces. The more aesthetic poems of Rossetti, though criticized by Robert Buchanan as part of "The Fleshly School of Poetry" (text) were not created in pursuit of sexual decadence, but because their sensuality stemmed from a merging of beauty and spirituality (discussed below). As Beckson writes, though Rossetti "held ideas somewhat similar to those of the French Aesthetes, he was convinced that subject was more important than mere form and that l'art pour l'art was a meaningless doctrine."
William Holman Hunt picked up a part Ruskin's thought that would also carry on in a different form for the aesthetes: the potential for an artist to consciously fill an image with meaning, particularly religious. Inspired by Ruskin's interpretation of Tintoretto's Annunciation, Hunt adopted a program of typological symbolism in which he painted hard-edged, realistic paintings of religious scenes heavily laden with symbols referencing scriptures. Several aesthetes, symbolists, and later decadents would also pursue the relation of text and image, but with startlingly different aims and results. Wilde commissioned Aubrey Beardsley to illustrate his play Salomé. The play itself grafts an entirely made up story onto the few original lines in the Bible, and Wilde does not miss a chance to fill it with violence and sexual perversion. Salomé turns inside out the doctrine of typological symbolism — though Wilde clearly sets his play against a biblical backdrop, he does so to unsettle and offend rather than inspire and convert.
Wilde does not forget to pay tribute to Ruskin in the play, according to Richard Ellmann, who believes that Salomé symbolizes Pater, Jokanaan (John the Baptist ), Ruskin and Herod, Wilde himselfxiv. According to Christopher Nassaar's "Wilde's Salomé and the Victorian Religious Landscape," "Jokanaan is not only Ruskinian but is also Wilde's presentation of Christianity as a religion of sexual repression. . . Wilde sought not simply to exoticize Ruskin but also to discredit and dismiss Christianity as a prelude to presenting us with his own "religion." The fall of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and of Newman and Ruskin, in the play leaves the stage empty for Wilde to fill the void." Jokanaan's beheading in the last scene may be a violent symbol of Wilde's adoption and later defacement of Ruskin's theories.
Wilde's choice of Beardsley as the play's illustrator only furthers its blasphemous content. Beardsley fills the illustrations with offensive elements: gratuitous nudity, caricatures of Wilde, and some completely unrelated images wherein he satirized contemporary life. Taking a passage from Hunt, and comparing it to Beardsley's work demonstrates this odd connection: "When language was not transcendental enough to complete the meaning of a revelation, symbols were relied upon for heavenly teaching, and familiar images, chosen from the known, were made to mirror the unknown spiritual truth" (Landow, Replete with Meaning). Replacing each religious word in this passage with another appropriately devilish one, e.g. "shock" in the place of"revelation," reveals how closely Beardsley follows Hunt's method. In The Toilette of Salomé (first version), for example, we find: familiar contemporary elements such as Baudelaire's Les Fleurs de Mal and Zola's La Terre, exotic flowers, and oriental and modern furnishings. Each of these, of course, carries heavy decadent connotations, from Decadence's symbolist birth in Baudelaire to its love of the cultivation of exotic flowers indoors. Beardsley is at once the greatest student and worst detractor of Hunt — maximizing the effect of symbolism while corrupting its message.
The similarities between "The Decay of Lying" and Ruskin's theories present a question: does Wilde wish to parody Ruskin or to praise him? To write off Wilde's essay as a parody piece, or even a satire, would undercut the seriousness of its content and the many ways in which Ruskin's theories clearly influenced the aesthetic movement. At the same time, to call the piece a mere praise of Ruskin would also do it a disservice, as nothing would mark it a work of the "aesthetic movement" instead of a re-iteration of Ruskin. A proper explanation of the piece in context, then, seems to incorporate both of these. As Beckson states: "[Wilde's] originality...lay in his clever manipulation of other men's ideas rather than in his personal vision and voice" (xxxvii). The seeming paradox here lies in the coexistence of "originality" and "other men's ideas." The work becomes distinctly Wilde, and thus one of the aesthetic movement, when judged by the way its wit, sarcasm and hyperbole shock the reader into believing that what Vivian says truly shakes the foundations of aesthetic theory.
This split between sincerity of content and satire in form that characterizes the essay helps to explain the Aesthetes. As Wilde tells us in The Chameleon preface, "the first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered"; by this he means extols the very self-consciously artificial nature of Aestheticism. Wilde to learned from the methods of form that the Pre-Raphaelites and Ruskin forged, while perverting their earnest content. Though some of his own beliefs if resembled, if not copied, those of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, his flippant Aesthetic side was allowed an absence of any concern for moral or social meaning.
Beckson, Karl. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers. 1981.
Wilde, Oscar. "Art and the Handicraftsman." Essays and Lectures. London: Methuen and Co., 1908
Wilde, Oscar. "The English Renaissance of Art." Essays and Lectures. London: Methuen and Co., 1908
Last modified 18 May 2008