With our discussions from previous classes and today, a ton of questions started to overwhelm me, with none that I had the answers to. While reading selections from Aesthetes and Decadents as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as an Artist, I began to wonder whether anybody could be an artist. The aesthetes, Symons specifically, constantly mention people such as littérateurs who “are impressionists because it is the Fashion, Symbolists because it is vogue, Decadents because Decadence is in the very air of the cafés” (144). In the modern-day, I feel like this description is synonymous with “pseudo-intellectuals.”
Before this class, I held a view that anybody can be an artist, as long as they consistently practice their craft. Some can be more gifted than others, but art is something that can be open to anyone, accessible and unbarring. The way the aesthetes speak about art almost contrasted this view, and it reminds me a lot of what we were talking about today regarding predestination in “The Harlot’s House.” The Calvinist view of poor people being poor because they were destined to be that way, making them more susceptible to “wicked things,” almost resembles the same argument of the littérateurs that Symons puts forth: art is for art’s sake, but somehow when saying that phrase, the artist and whether they were predestined to be an artist matters.
This line of logic lead me to our conversation in today’s class, where we talked about how Oscar Wilde’s poems in prose flowed better than his poems, as he adhered to the strict parameters and conventions of poetry with the rhyme scheme. He is better suited for the prose format to express himself and impress the reader at a deeper meaning—but what is the reason that we all agree his poems are not his strong suit? What is it about them? Was he, as an artist, simply predestined to be only skillful with prose and plays? I hope this semester that I can keep thinking about style and the aesthetes, and why exactly everyone praises him for his prose and plays rather than his poetry.
I’ve had an interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde for a while, but I had never read any of his works until taking this class. I found the essays of the Decadent writers to be challenging, yet interesting, and I appreciate the wit and humor of the works of Wilde we’ve read so far. However, there’s a common feature in the Decadent writers’ and Wilde’s works that bothers me immensely: the blatant classism.
I didn’t think that classism and elitism would be such a common occurrence in these writings, but it is such a glaring feature in some of these writings that it sours my opinion on the work as a whole, even if the work manages to make some good points in other places. For instance, in Arthur Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” he speaks highly of the French poet Mallarmé and his style of writing. Symons also speaks of how Mallarmé “always looked with intense disdain on the indiscriminate accident of universal suffrage. He has wished neither to be read nor to be understood by the bourgeois intelligence, and it is with some deliberateness of intention that he has made both issues impossible.” In this statement, Symons makes it seem as if only the aristocracy are worthy of comprehending Mallarmé’s works, and that the intelligence of the middle class will always be lacking. This is such an annoying sentiment to me. It just seems ridiculous to deliberately make your writing more complicated so that people you arbitrarily deem unworthy can’t understand it. It also seems like a way to shield yourself from criticism because if someone were to critique your writing for being difficult and overwrought, you can just say that they’re just too pedestrian to truly get it.
This classism is also glaring in “The Critic as Artist.” In the dialogue, Gilbert states, “Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the lower and middle classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more to the eye, and less and less to the ear.” The use of the words “fatal development” in regards to literacy becoming more widespread is particularly egregious to me. The entirety of this work centers around the importance of the impression of art on the viewer. However, since middle and lower class people reading is apparently a “fatal development,” this work makes it seem like only people whose opinion on art matters are members of the aristocracy.
“The Critic as Artist” posits that art will stagnate if it’s created without criticism, however, I would also like to add that art will stagnate if only the elite are allowed to create and critique art. Letting a variety of different people with different opinions create and critique art is beneficial for its development.
I was really intrigued by Symon’s comparison of Decadence to an opera glass in his piece “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” The Decadents’ whole ethos is an emphasis of style, cleverness and beauty over substance. The opera glass is “a special, unique way of seeing things” (138), particular to the closer examination of an art form. As a tool of vision and perception, the opera glass is a really helpful analogy, a way of articulating how the Decadents viewed their whole movement. They were creating a particular way of experiencing art and understanding beauty, a special and unique way of seeing things, of seeing art and of rendering “our ideas, our sensations… a personal language, a language bearing our signature.” (139) Even further, the idea of particular perception they are articulating dovetails really nicely with this analogy because perception is so subjective and hinges fundamentally on the way the individual reacts to stimuli in their environment. That the opera glass is a perceptual tool further reinforces the Decedents’ assertion that what the individual sees in a work of art is a reflection of that individual and that individual alone, divorced from the emotional or perceptual effort of the artist.
That it is specifically an opera glass is also really informative. Opera is a performative, often inaccessible art form with a reputation for elitism that typically doesn’t resonate with those who are unfamiliar with or haven’t been exposed to the language and cultural experience tied to opera. Similarly, if you don’t hold with or share the experiences of the Decadents, their work becomes all that much harder to parse and understand — what is jest, what is truth, what do they actually believe. They are interested in “a desperate endeavor to give sensation, to flash the impression of the moment, to preserve the very heart and motion of life” (138). You have to use their opera glasses, their understanding of the world to get a close enough look to understand what they are getting at. It is interesting to note that Symons is using an analogy for viewing visual art to discuss the Decadent movement in Literature specifically, and to think about what that means for how he or other Decadents viewed the distinctions between different art forms. While I don’t buy into the idea of art for art’s sake personally, the analogy of the opera glass is easy to hold onto as a measure of the way the Decadents viewed themselves, their perception of their movement.
While reading “The Harlot’s House,” I was struck by the line “Like strange mechanical grotesques” (7). We discussed the significance of “strange” in Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature” and how the word suggests queerness. It is interesting that Wilde uses strange to describe grotesques because it suggests a fascination with them. While the grotesque is horrifying, it demands a viewer’s attention, like a car crash people cannot look away from. The grotesque brings Frankenstein to mind and Milton’s Paradise Lost as a result. Professor McCrea mentioned Milton’s Satan in our discussion last week and how the most wicked character in the poem is by far the most appealing. This connects to “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” where Wilde proposes “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). With that phrase in mind, “The Harlot’s House” is both an examination of prostitution and a deconstruction of the binaries of good and bad. We have talked about how the decadents emphasize style and form over significance, and I think that the word “mechanical” in this line highlights the lack of intentionality of the people dancing in the harlot’s house. They dance like “wire-pulled automatons / slim silhouetted skeletons” (13-14). The dancers are not considering the wickedness of their actions. While they are described as grotesques and skeletons in a poem laden with gothic elements and shadows, the puppeteering element dissolves any sense of agency they may have. There are no moral assignments in the poem, only transient figures and interactions. As the music stops and the figures return into the normal world, there is a sense that anyone could wander into the harlot’s house and back out. It is as if the mechanical grotesques and ghosts walk among us, and returning to Wilde’s philosophy, “good people” are no exception.