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‘Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.’

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Introduction

'Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.' The study of the life and work of Oscar Wilde -the married homosexual, the Protestant Anglo-Irishman with Nationalist and Catholic sympathies- is characterised by his most famous literary device, the paradox, and nowhere is this more true than in his attitude to art. He was an aesthete who worshipped the cult of beauty and strove to live his life artistically yet he was unable to realise these high ideals in either his work or his life, inextricably linked as they were. Art was certainly the serious guiding principle in the life of Wilde the artist, but he compromised his aesthetic principles by his human inability to keep it, and thus himself, detached from serious ideas. On arriving in England, Wilde was initially seduced by the Oxford Aesthetes, who at that time were heavily inspired by the pre-Raphelite and Christian enthusiasms of Ruskin, and by his idea that art should remain true to nature. However, he soon fell under the more Decadent influence of his tutor, the German and Greek philosophy don Walter Pater, who had already published a number of essays on the subject of art, including one in 1866 in which he publicly declared his renunciation of Christianity in favour of 'a religion of art'1. Pater proposed in his collection of essays Studies in the History of the Renaissance2 that young men ought to actively seek out sensation and 'great passions'3 and cultivate Romantically heightened sensibilities in the pursuit of aesthetic experience, advocating that they ought to 'get as many pulsations as possible into the given time'4. ...read more.

Middle

Whilst superficially a light pastiche of the private lives of the ruling classes of England, An Ideal Husband highlights the discrepancy between high minded morals and the realities of political power, and also generates a faint sense of disquiet at the ease at which Lady Chiltern is relegated back to the role of the dutiful, subservient wife by Lord Goring's absurd speech A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions...A woman who can keep a man's love, and love him in return, has done all the world wants of woman, or should want of them. It is only in The Importance of Being Earnest that the social and moral agendas of the other comedies is allowed to give way completely to an aesthetic drama governed by Gwendolen's maxim In matters of grave importance style, not sincerity is the vital thing. Norbert Kohl notes that Wilde 'reduces earnest Victorian morality into the proportions of a name, making an ethical attitude into a formal aesthetic category'7 and therefore undermines the very idea of a moral point to the play. Wilde's fairy tales conform to his aesthetic principle, outlined in The Decay of Lying, that the naturalistic style so in vogue in the nineteenth century was in complete opposition to the true aim of the artist, which was 'the telling of beautiful, untrue things'. Their fanciful form and content is certainly art as he saw it, 'purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent'. It seems probable that they were not written purely because of his new family circumstances, but, perhaps chiefly, to put into creative practice his anti-realistic ideas. ...read more.

Conclusion

that the tragedy has finally become real for the author makes it more than empty Victorian morality, it is a real expression of life in art. Wilde held very high artistic ideals, but the reality for him as an artist is well illustrated by his comment on the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be -in other ages perhaps.15 He saw art as the only serious aim in life, yet he himself was a continual compromise between Lord Henry and Basil Hallward, between his public and private personas, between the disinterested beautiful aesthete and the conventional Victorian socialite, and thus he was never able to devote himself entirely and seriously to art. He could not isolate himself from society or its morality, and this retention of another creed meant that, by his own artistic standards, his work was often outside the sphere of true art; although both it and his life were often aesthetically beautiful, they did not exist solely for beauty. This does not however make his art a failure by less exacting standards, for it was the social and personal influences upon it that saved it from superficiality. His work is less about 'art for art's sake' than an expression of his own life and ideas Wilde devoted his career to investigating that most elusive of subject matter, the self, and creating an expressive medium for his findings.16 1 Walter Pater, Coleridge's Writings, Oxford, 1866 2 Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, London, 1873 3 ibid. 4 ibid. ...read more.

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