Observations on Oscar Wilde's Aestheticism

 black and white image of Oscar Wilde sitting

Aestheticism: a nineteenth-century literary and artistic movement that argued that art has no utility and morality.   They, instead, stressed the polish and brilliance of aesthetic form.  They were influenced by the Parnassians, a French group of poets who rejected Romanticism for clarity and precession of details.  A belief in "Art for Art's Sake".

Decadents: a loose group of English artists and writers of the 1890's who were fascinated with drugs, cosmetics, perverse sexual practices, the exotic, the pagan, and the horrific.

Wilde's Aestheticism

  1. Our perception of life and nature imitates art rather than the reverse.  Art is not a mimesis of the actual world but a regulator of human perceptions.
  2. The art object should have no usefulness.  It cannot be judged true or false.  Art's having a message leads to an emptying of its beauty.
  3. "Truth" in art is style alone -- the supremacy of form over against the conscious use of didacticism.
  4. Along with this, Wilde adopts the pose of the dandy whose life is an aesthetic performance.  He rejects the bourgeoisie as socially useful and therefore incapable of aesthetic performance.  Instead, he opts for an interest in the aristocracy as leisured uselessness -- an attitude, rather than a monetary amount.
  5. "Sincere and Studied Triviality" suggests a more thought-out approach than the initial polish of the surface might at first suggest.   What, then, is Wilde attempting to achieve beneath (or through) the witty display of epigrams?
  6. For one thing, a desire to undercut all pretensions to serious power.   Wilde's stance is not simple relativism; instead, he is working to keep imploding set constructions that run the risk of oppression.  Ethics should be instinctive and aesthetic not rule-based or utilitarian.
  7. Thus, he puts forth an ethics of nonchalance, where one is true to one's self against the rules of society that represses freedom.  What appears as sin may be progress and freedom.
  8. He believes that a love of beauty will naturally lead to a certain natural grace, charm, and harmony of person.  Everything should be done without hurt to another. 
  9. One could argue then (as Landow does) that the Wilde's characters use wit to avoid understanding each other by reversing or undercutting the meaning of anyone's statements.  No one can lay any claim of responsibility or accountability on another because such meaning is not received.  Despite Wilde's love of freedom and avoidance of pain, the dandy must avoid any specific demands on himself by a deliberate, if whimsical, callousness to others.