The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Rise of Aestheticism
Oscar Wilde's the Picture of Dorian Gray is the manifesto of Late Victorian Aestheticism.
The Late Victorian Era was characterized by numerous artistic and literary movements that were reactions to the growing industrialization and homogenization of contemporary society. As trains, telephones, and factories rushed humankind headlong to an unknown future, many of the greatest lights of the Age looked back into the Past, and to a simpler, more clearly-defined time and place; a time and place with readily-recognized rules and standards. For centuries, the Classical World of Ancient Greece and Rome had provided a model for modern Europeans. Artists, writers, philosophers, architects -- even musicians -- let themselves be guided by what they believed to be the Classical canons of behavior and taste. Until the dawn of the Industrial Age, Europe's intellectual class entertained no illusions that their culture was anything but an inferior imitation of a superior, and long-gone, civilization. But then science and technology made such remarkable strides. Men began to believe that anything was possible ... until they looked at out the smoke blackened trees, and the disease ridden slums of the new metropolises. Men like John Ruskin, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde recognized that much that was good was being lost in the push for modernity. They recognized that the Classical Canon pointed the way to a more beautiful and elegant world. The Arts and Craft Movement, and Aestheticism, saw poetry in the handmade and the traditional. The Greek ideal was captured in print by Oscar Wilde and others. Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray is as much a manifesto of the Aesthetic Movement as it is a seething attack on life with art, and love without humanity.
Dorian Gray speaks for the best and the worst of the Classical ideal. The title character of Oscar Wilde's work is a nearly perfect human being in the sense of a Classical statue. The Classical Greek statue was sculptured according to very rigid rules; the relationship of each part to the whole conformed to a carefully calculated mathematical formula ... If the sculptor's aim was to create a "beautiful" image. Beauty was reserved, of course, for gods, heroes, and other noble specimens of creation. One merely had to reverse these same proportions to give the effect of ugliness or evil. Depicted as the ideal of golden Mediterranean youth, Dorian Gray is a Greek statue on numerous different levels. Like these perfect figures in marble, his remarkable beauty hides many an inner defect. Like the gods, he is often amoral, his soul far-removed from the purity and perfection of his appearance:
Allusions to the Mediterranean appear in Oscar Wilde's most notorious work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about beauty and decadence, pleasure and crime. The fin-de-siecle atmosphere of art, money, sex and drugs relies partly on the homoerotic attractiveness of the handsome Dorian Gray; the artist who paints his fated portrait, Basil Hallward, has an idealised obsession with Dorian, while Lord Henry Wotton, the epigram-spouting aristocrat, charms and seduces Dorian as a caprice. Yet another character, Alan Campbell, forced to cover up the murder Dorian commits by threat of blackmail and who is eventually driven to suicide, is his rejected lover. The novel is rife with references to homosexuality, obvious enough to the general reader and blatant to the initiated.
The barely-hidden homosexual theme that runs through the novel is also well-served by the Greek ideal. The Ancient Greeks were famous for their love of boys. At almost every point in Western History that Greek ideas and culture were again popular, there have been those artistic and literary individuals who have fancied themselves re-living the Greek fantasy. One might look at the example of the notorious "Office of the Night" in Renaissance Florence. An invasive agency of the Florentine Government, the Office of the Night, attempted to interfere in the private lives of even its leading citizens in the name of suppressing the "vice" of homosexuality. "The passion for the classical world that characterized the elite culture of the Italian Renaissance did not, as has sometimes been uncritically assumed, revive some mythical Greek ethos in which sexual relations between males enjoyed widespread and unqualified tolerance."
Rather, homosexuality was one aspect of "Greek Life" that was despised by a large part of the population. Though the association is strong throughout Dorian Gray, it still must remain hidden, concealed behind a welter of masks -- one only sees it if one knows it is there.
To the Late Victorian artist or writer, the Greek Ideal was certainly much more than just sex. The canon of proportions, and the rules that had been recommended by the Ancients, were seen as of vital importance to the continued existence of a cultured world. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, as with many of Wilde's other writings, there is another campaign being waged, and it is the war against the "philistines." Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's adored Bosie and no doubt a prototype of Dorian, specifically raised the ugly charge of philistinism in defending another of Wilde's works. Lord Douglas attacked the newspapers that attacked Oscar Wilde's Salome:
But it is the daily Press itself, the 'mouthpiece of Philistinism', that Lord Alfred Douglas accuses of 'pompous absurdities' in its condemnation of Salome (No. 49). Clearly a puff for Wilde, the review declares the play a 'perfect work of art, a joy for ever'.
And most definitely it was art, "high art," that Wilde was endeavoring to create. Oscar Wilde and the other Aesthetes recognized philistinism in almost every aspect of the new, popular, industrial world. The Marquess of Queensbury himself, Bosie's father, was a particularly crass exemplar of the leveling effects of the new trends. A century earlier, a born and bred aristocrat like the Marquess of Queensbury would never have been directly associated with that which he is most famous. He wrote the rules for boxing -- a decidedly plebian sport, now raised to the level of an aristocratic diversion. As Wilde and his colleagues saw it, there was a much deeper problem behind a marquess with a passion for boxing. The real tragedy was that those who should be setting an example -- the members of the well-educated upper classes -- were instead indulging full force in the tearing down of the Classical heritage.
Oscar Wilde continued with the theme of intellectualism in De Profundis, remarking on points he had raised in the earlier Portrait of Dorian Gray,
I said in Dorian Gray that the great sins of the world take place in the brain: but it is in the brain that everything takes place. We know now that we do not see with the eyes or hear with the ears. They are really channels for the transmission, adequate or inadequate, of sense impressions.
According to the precepts of Aestheticism, the world of thought, of imagination, was the key to culture and civilization. The gross physicality of something like the Marquess of Queensbury Rules was far away from the beauty and proportion of the Greek Ideal. Only in its attention to rules did it bear any similarity at all to Greek ideas of scale, and purpose. Yet, they were rules for a vulgar sport. The Greeks reveled in the beauty of the physical body, but again, only in so far as it was made beautiful by physical activity. A Greek athlete raced and jumped to keep his muscles supple and toned, to keep the "temple of his soul" in marvelous condition. It was for such reasons that John Ruskin praised manual labor, evidently believing it an ennobling and character-building undertaking. Ruskin's ideas on manual labor, art, and society were disseminated to Wilde and other eager young Aesthetes of the period:
Much has been written about Ruskin's Oxford road-building experiments and his attempts to initiate undergraduates into the duty of manual labour. Many memoirs of the 1870s and 1880s suggest that, for stylish young men from Oscar Wilde downwards, breakfast with Ruskin followed by a working trip to the Hinksey road became a fashionable high-spot of Oxford life. More important as an influence on policy, however, was to be the use that Ruskin made of his lectures on art to propound his social doctrines; doctrines that made a profound impact on a small group of men who were later to become active in many areas of public life.
As can be seen, the Aesthetic doctrine embraced by Wilde, Ruskin, and others, was meant to be a blueprint for an entire society. The coarse tendencies of the financiers and industrialists ran counter to these inclinations.
The creator of Dorian Gray possessed a powerful Classical sensibility. In common with other great writers of his age and earlier, he reveled in the kind of allusion to Greek and Roman myth that could be found in all of their works. The Classical represented the ideal in thought as in form: