The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Aestheticism

BEFORE

1884 In French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, the eccentric aesthete antihero, Jean des Esseintes, loathes middle-class morality.

AFTER

1901 German novelist Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks details the decline of bourgeois culture in the 19th century.

1912 Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice charts the succumbing to temptation of Gustav von Aschenbach, an artist who goes down a self-destructive path of erotic infatuation and excess.

1926 The novella Dream Story, by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, is published; it is considered a key piece in the turn-of-the-century Viennese decadence movement that is associated with Aestheticism.

When the dandy Lord Henry first seduces the title character of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray into a life of debauchery, his advice to yield to temptation summarizes the basic tenets of Aestheticism. The Aesthetic movement developed in late 19th-century Europe and Britain, emphasizing the primacy of “art for art’s sake” rather than for its social, political, or moral “value”.

In pursuit of pleasure

In Wilde’s novel, the beautiful Dorian lives the life of the ideal aesthete, embracing all forms of hedonism in pursuit of new sensations. As he enters further into a life of dissipation and corruption, behind closed doors his magical portrait conceals the horrors of his sins, his painted image becoming older and uglier while he remains young and unblemished in the flesh.

While the story is considered a prime example of the creed of appreciating art and life for sensual pleasure alone, Dorian’s path of excess is a destructive one and he leaves many victims in his wake. His is not a straightforward tale of aesthetic pleasure, but, like the Aesthetic movement, it questions the bourgeois morality of the 19th century, which required art to serve a higher purpose. Wilde’s portrayal of Aestheticism attacks this by suggesting that art should be removed from morality. Wilde saw his celebration of amoral sensuality and destruction as a critique of the middle-class ideology that, he felt, was stifling art with its didacticism.

Beauty and decay

Just as Dorian superficially thrives while his painting decays, the façade of Aestheticism disguised the loss of a middle-class social order in the waning of the British Empire. The beautiful decay that so “fascinates” Lord Henry represents the society from which it stems, where temptation is overly indulged as a symbol of a world in decline. Beauty might reign, but at a terrible cost – for Dorian, the ultimate price is his soul.

See also: Death in Venice