aestheticism movement found, in Oscar Wilde, its most eloquent and staunch supporter; consequently, his only novel, the Picture of Dorian Gray, is a monument to the notion that art is the pure manifestation of beauty and reveals Wilde's particular reverence for classical western society's artistic achievements.
Oscar Wilde fundamentally sought to dislodge art from morality within his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in so doing, pay his respects to the beauty in Greek culture by viewing through this amoral lens. Its original publication in 1890 was met with severe criticism from many who perceived it to be utterly disgraceful and immoral; as a result, Wilde attempted to answer his critics by revising the Picture of Dorian Gray and amending it with preface -- outlining his philosophical underpinnings -- in the following year. In short, Wilde believed, "The sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolutely distinct and separate."
His preface lays the foundation for why he believes his novel is valuable, and additionally, why he believes it to be completely absent of any clear applicability to the physical world. Oscar Wilde was the most powerful voice to emerge from aestheticism in the late nineteenth century, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is the culmination of its philosophical premises.
Aestheticism first found its philosophical footing in the eighteenth century; it drew its understanding of nature and beauty from the writings of Immanuel Kant, who expressed his notion that art was autonomous. Just as comprehending the beauty of a tree fails to depend upon any auxiliary information about the physical properties of trees, beauty itself was perceived to be independent of everything but itself. Kant was convinced that the autonomy of the human soul permitted such internal recognitions of external beauty. For this reason, Kant was not as interested in the physical creations of art, as he was in the impressions that art could leave upon the intellect; he called this reflective judgment.
This way of understanding the world is backed by the fact that although it could be argued that people receive sensory information from the same material truths, every individual's interpretation of these external occurrences is necessarily played upon by the forces of perception. So, this applies to art in that the same physical piece of work cannot be expected to be understood in the same way by every person who experiences it.
Oscar Wilde noticed this as well, and contended that this variety of opinions regarding single pieces of artwork is representative of the potential value of that art. He makes this concept explicit in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital."
To Wilde, it should be anticipated that his novel receives a wide range of interpretations and reactions; however, the most forceful reaction his original publication evoked was that of moral appall. The amorality of Lord Henry, the homoeroticism permeating the characterization of Basil, and Dorian's subsequent hedonism all represent aspects of humanity which late Victorian culture sought to undermine or ignore. Yet Wilde does not avoid these moral pitfalls in his novel; this is for the specific reason that he accepts Kant's autonomous picture of art; Wilde believes that he is capable of capturing some aspect of beauty reflective in the human soul, and transposing it upon paper.
The central reason why Wilde holds that his characters can mimic the immorality of society and still lack any application to it, grows out of the idea first put forward by Theophile Gautier that "art has no utility."
Such contentions were direct reactions to the seeds of utilitarianism that peppered English society, and seemed to justify gross inequalities in wealth and social station. The strictly materialistic stance of scientists like Charles Darwin had been erroneously applied to modern civilization and, on the surface, seemed to grant credence to the privileged positions of the upper classes, while simultaneously, attributing the plight of the lower classes solely to poor breeding. With the emergence of industrialization, new forms of wealth and new economic groups took shape in the England. Additionally, with the power of modern science revealed, many organizations began to misapply science's findings to justify social inequalities. Social Darwinism and its corollaries carried much weight well into the twentieth century; in which formal, state sanctioned methods of eugenics were adopted not only in Europe but in the United States as well. The class structure, crime, illiteracy, and virtually every social problem were attributed, by many, to inherently inferior individuals (Degler, 35). Contrasting such concrete notions of the world, to Wilde, was art; art possessed no such detrimental ramifications, and therefore, lacked any resemblance to science or political thought. Art could not make obvious injustices appear moral; it could merely facilitate the spread of appreciation and joy.
Here it is possible to understand what the characters within The Picture of Dorian Gray are intended to reveal about aestheticism. Wilde explains,
"The painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty far too much, as most painters do, dies by the hand of one whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of mere sensation of pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself. Lord Henry Wotton seeks to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it."
Undeniably, these characters represent a series of morals that the audience could obtain though reading Wilde's novel. Nevertheless, the nature of these morals is elementally dissimilar to the immorality that critics assailed Wilde for. Again, it is easier to grasp Wilde's reasoning by looking back to Kant; the philosophy surrounding pleasure and morality that Kant expounds asserts that for something to be artistically beautiful it must be regarded by the audience from a totally disinterested perspective. "What Kant means by 'disinterested' is that the object falls outside the sphere of practical concerns. It is an object we may or may not desire to acquire, to possess, to use, to consume, or in some other way incorporate into our lives or ourselves."
In other words, true beauty -- that which is not connected to personal gains -- exists as almost absolute emotion, and gratification from the mere experience surrounding the particular object that possesses such beauty. For example, it is possible for human beings to behold a sunrise, derive pleasure from it, and still, not want to physically be in possession or control of the sun. In fact, individuals may want to share such experiences of beauty with others, rather than attach some form of utility to it. Analogous arguments can be made for any number of human feelings as they are associated with paintings, music, and indeed, literature.
In this light, it is significant that Dorian Gray is so strongly influenced by the philosophical objectivism of Lord Henry. Henry reveals to Dorian a certain fact about beauty, which singularly acts to urge him towards hedonism: Dorian is provided the knowledge that art and beauty are intrinsically transient. The beauty that Basil captures serves to represent the singular nature of Dorian's loveliness -- it was physically present only during the single moment that the painting was completed. However, of equal importance is the fact that Dorian misunderstands the source of the beauty in the portrait: it is not in his soul, but the impression he had upon Basil's soul. Consequently, Dorian seeks to perpetuate his own outward beauty at the expense of his inner hollowness, and thus, the beauty of the painting fades. This uncovers Wilde's belief that the utility appropriated to objective rationality serves to distort art to such an extent that it can no longer be seen. The picture looses its beauty because materialistically attempting to preserve its truth is a contradiction of the truth the painting had originally captured. Dorian immerses himself in the "new hedonism," which is described by Wilde:
"It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience. Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be. Of the asceticism that deadens the senses, as of the vulgar profligacy that dulls them, it was to know nothing. But it was to teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that is itself but a moment."
This becomes the principle by which Dorian Gray conducts his life, and is a direct rejection of the principles by which Oscar Wilde attempted -- but failed -- to conduct his own life. Wilde held the premise of Kant's disinterested perspective; therefore, it is important for him to depict the fallacy of pursuing experiences for the unsullied result of physical…
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