The Flâneur

Library > Decadent Art and Freedom > Chapter 1 - Introduction



In response to attacks on both his life and art, Oscar Wilde (1891a) declared that "The state is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful" (p. 1050). For Decadent artists such as Wilde, art did not need to have a use-value distinct from its value as an aesthetic object; art, for the Decadents, exists merely for its own sake. Along with this conception of art's freedom from utility, the Decadent artist attempted to live a life which similarly rejected utility and purpose, as utility and purpose are associated with the capitalist world that they deplored. Therefore, it will be argued that the 'useless' art and lifestyle - in the sense of lacking utility or productivity - of the Decadent artist (although I will also discuss non-Decadent artists and thinkers who share the view of art's autonomy) was a response towards capitalist society's demand for both didactic/useful art and a productive life during the nineteenth century. Hence, art and life will be shown to intertwine. The 'art for art's sake' doctrine that the Decadents adopt - which postulates art's freedom from external concerns such as morality - is inextricably linked to their way of life (life free from social concerns), and is not merely an artistic standpoint. It will also be revealed that art is important for the Decadents as it reconciles the problem of life's futility - a point which will become clearer as the dissertation progresses. The above debates will be presented in the context of historical events; therefore, the dissertation is both a contextual analysis of art during the Victorian period, and a contribution to an enduring debate concerning art's purpose.

I will begin by examining the rise of the bourgeoisie through the Industrial Revolution and their involvement with art. It will be shown that art, for the bourgeois capitalist, should serve a function, which ought to be concerned with the perpetuation of the capitalist way of life through propagandized representations of morality based on theology. Art, therefore, in a similar manner to the bourgeois capitalist's life, is useful: it has purpose and a function. In the next chapter, I will turn to the Decadent artist's response towards the capitalist conception of art and life. I will discuss their disgust for bourgeois capitalist morality and principles, and their rejection of utility in both their lives and their art. I will then turn to the Decadent artist's use of art as a means to rectify their conception of life's meaninglessness, and will end the chapter by looking at extreme world-weariness resulting in a total withdrawal from society, and, as a consequence, the avoidance of productivity and sexual reproduction. The next chapter will expand on these points by analysing the negation of the capitalist system through the figures of the dandy and the flâneur, who represent the rejection of function and progress. I will also discuss the implications of depicting vice, crime and the general underside of the capitalist metropolis. The final chapter will then tie these themes together through an analysis of Oscar Wilde, his homosexuality and the representation of the double life in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. This thesis will end with an analysis of bourgeois society's counter response towards the Decadent revolt, which is manifested in Wilde's trial, and imprisonment.

As mentioned above, the Industrial Revolution, which Christopher Caudwell (1937) claims was "the 'explosive' stage of capitalism" (p. 203), instigated the advance of the bourgeoisie. What Caudwell means is that, with the advent of steam-powered machines, the economy shifted from an agrarian based economy, which supported the feudal aristocracy, towards an industrial based economy in favour of the bourgeois capitalist. As a consequence, power and inherited privilege was replaced by social mobility through hard work and productivity. This revolutionary social change had a profound effect on the form and function of art, and, as a consequence, on the artist also. The newly wealthy bourgeois capitalist became interested in art and began to purchase and commission artworks that represented the morals and values of bourgeois life. It was important for the bourgeoisie that art was didactic, and portrayed moral messages that promoted and perpetuated their principles as a social class. Art, therefore, had a use-value, it was a commodity, and the artist also had a use: to promote bourgeois values through art. Thus, bourgeois art and the bourgeois life were based around utility and productivity. But what exactly were the values and concerns that the bourgeois capitalist demanded in art?

Sir Henry Tate (1819-1899), who founded the Tate Gallery, was one such newly wealthy capitalist who became interested in art. Tate can be seen as the archetypal 'self-made man': he started work as a grocer's assistant then, through hard work and determination, worked his way up to become the owner of a sugar company. It was themes concerning work and determination that the bourgeois capitalists demanded from art, which are themes that represent their rise to power. Ford Madox Brown's painting Work (1852-65) is one such artwork that presents capitalist values of labour. The painting depicts a street scene in which various people are purposefully attending to their occupations. Every individual in the painting has a function, and their lives are presented as purposeful, and work is depicted as noble and dignified. The painting, therefore, promotes capitalist themes of work and toil, but also of the purposefulness of life - something which will be contradicted by the Decadent artists in the next chapter. Thus, in a similar way to the life of the capitalist that it depicts, the work of art is useful, productive and purposeful.

Art, therefore, had a function for the bourgeoisie: to promote and perpetuate the values and morals of their social class. Hence, art has a purpose, in a similar manner to how the bourgeois individual's life is purposeful. There is another important factor that underlies bourgeois values and morality: religion, which Terry Eagleton (2005) claims is a "pacifying influence" (p. 20) during the Victorian period. Religion is used in order to perpetuate the bourgeois way of life by underpinning their values with a theological backing. In John Everett Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents (1850), for instance, religious themes are linked with work. Although the painting was controversial in its depiction of an overly realistic workshop and a redheaded Christ, it nevertheless equates the bourgeois value of work's dignity with religion.

As mentioned above, the bourgeoisie attempted to make the link between their values and religion explicit in art. The importance of religious morality in art was also promoted by the eminent Victorian critic John Ruskin. Ruskin believed that "Ideas of beauty … are the subjects of moral, but not of intellectual perception" (cited by Fraser, 1986, p. 116). For Ruskin, morality is the basis by which something is deemed beautiful. Hilary Fraser (1986) claims that, along with Matthew Arnold, Ruskin had a "tendency to think about … religion in aesthetic terms" (p.111). For Ruskin, art must be didactic: it must portray some moral, religious truth that could be of value to its audience. Therefore, the artist has a duty and a purpose: to create morally useful art in order to benefit society.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was another leading figure in bourgeois Victorian society that promoted didactic and useful art. Tennyson's views on art are analogous to those of Ruskin's. For Tennyson, the autonomy of art is extremely abhorrent: in an untitled poem (1897) he states:

Art for Art's sake! Hail, truest Lord of Hell
Hail, Genius, Master of the Moral Will!
'The filthiest of all paintings painted well
Is mightier than the purest painted ill!'
Yea, mightier than the purest painted well,
So prone are we towards the broad way to Hell. (1-6)

In a similar manner to Ruskin, Tennyson is conflating aesthetics with religion by associating art's autonomy and freedom from utility with the most extreme religious rhetoric: 'Lord of Hell'. Tennyson was directly linked with the mainstream bourgeois society of the period; he was made Poet Laureate in 1850 and was awarded his peerage in 1884. As official state poet during the period, his views regarding art's autonomy must be seen as representative of the mainstream public. Hence, the 'art for art's sake' doctrine, which will be discussed in detail in the next chapter, was deplored by society on the grounds of its irreligiousness.

Didactic art was, therefore, associated with the mainstream principles of the bourgeoisie. Those principles included hard work, productivity, purpose and religion. As well as being the representation and promotion of bourgeois society's values, art was also used as a warning, which can be seen in William Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience (1853). The painting, which subscribes to Ruskin's and Tennyson's views regarding art's purpose as a conveyor of moral messages, portrays a Victorian drawing room, in which a woman is in the process of getting up from her lover's lap. The painting is a moral narrative: the woman seems to feel guilty about what she is doing; she realises her mistake and remedies it. The formal characteristics of the painting help to enhance the painting's moral message: the painting is meticulously detailed and looks lifelike and realistic. The furnishings of the drawing room and the clothing of the people are representative of the period, which would help Hunt's contemporaries to relate to the paintings message. During the period there were a high percentage of STD cases due to illicit sex. The Contagious Diseases Act first appeared in 1864, eleven years after Hunt's painting, and stated that policemen could arrest prostitutes and check them for venereal disease (rather than target those who pay them for their services). Hunt's painting, therefore, is a moral warning concerning the shame and sin of promiscuous sex, and could also be linked to a more practical and material concern regarding STDs.

Hunt's moral warning against illicit sex is also linked to another bourgeois concern: family life and reproduction. Regenia Gagnier (1997) states that the Victorians 'agonized' over family values (p. 18). However, Marx and Engels (1998) believed that "The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production" (p. 22) and also deem the bourgeois family as an institution of exploitation and control. Many paintings during the Victorian era depict the wholesomeness of family life in order to veil this exploitation and control. William Powell Frith's painting Many Happy Returns of the Day (1856), for example, depicts a typical bourgeois domestic scene. The painting portrays the luxuries and comforts of the bourgeois home and presents family life as something to aspire to. The young children in the painting are important, as they stand for the perpetuation of bourgeois life. Thus, if men and women are having promiscuous sex, they are not conforming to the idea of the bourgeois family. The bourgeois family is both the physical continuation of bourgeois life, and an institution which helps to control and perpetuate the capitalist bourgeois system of paternal rule.

Philanthropy and altruism were also issues that concerned the bourgeois Victorian, as charity and unselfishness are linked to religious morality. Writers used their novels to express their anxiety regarding society's problems. Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South (1855), for instance, brought issues regarding the poor conditions of workers in the industrial North to the fore. Likewise, Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist (1837-9) criticises the conditions of the workhouses, and in Hard Times (1854) he critiques Utilitarianism. However, for Marx and Engels, these gestures for social change are disingenuous. In a similar manner to how family values are used to perpetuate bourgeois ideas of patriarchy and reproduction, Marx and Engels claim that the bourgeois philanthropist is merely addressing social grievances "in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society." (Engels & Marx, 1998, p.33). In order for the bourgeois capitalist to remain in power and also remain there without fear of revolution, philanthropy and altruism are used in the attempt to "cast away all its [the proletariat's] hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie." (Engels & Marx, 1998, p. 33).

Social commentator's such as Charles Dickens, therefore, draw attention to social grievances, yet their altruistic concerns seem to be underpinned by the perpetuation of their social class' way of life. According to George Orwell (1940) "There is no clear sign that he [Charles Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown" (pp.297-8). Although Dickens does question some aspects of the 'existing order', he nevertheless supports its overall ideology. This could possibly be because Dickens, in a similar manner to Henry Tate, was born poor yet became successful; the capitalist system of social mobility worked for him. Dickens' 'rags to riches' life story is reflected in his novel Great Expectations (1860-1). The protagonist Pip rises through poverty to become an educated bourgeois gentleman. The money that funds his lifestyle comes through the hard work of the convict Magwitch, rather than through the aristocratic inheritance of Miss Havisham. According to Dennis Walder (2005), Dickens appears to "approve Pip's achievement of respectable middle-class integrity by the end of the novel, telling us he has worked hard and paid his debts" (p. 159). Pip's life of hard work and perseverance through adversity echoes Dickens' rise to a 'respectable' bourgeois status. Hence, as Humphry House (1965) states, Great Expectations "is the clearest artistic triumph of the Victorian bourgeoisie on its own special ground." (p.156).

There is another aspect to the Victorian realist novel that is important: serialisation. The capitalist system works on the basis of supply and demand, and the serialised novel fits perfectly into the capitalist scheme; it offered "both entertainment and instruction and something appropriate for each member of the family" (Walder, 2005, p. 131). Serialisation was cheaper for people and, therefore, allowed a wider readership. Also, it offered interaction between readers and the author: readers could write to authors with their opinions and recommendations. Thus, writers were able to gage audience responses and amended their work in order to conform to public demand. Consequently, the form of the novel changed due to serialisation: it reflected the episodic nature of serialisation. Artistic intentions and creativity were, as a result, succumbing to business and finance. By being popular, a writer could be successful financially; however, this was at the expense of artistic creativity. As a result, art turns into a commodity, rather than an expression of artistic individuality and creativity, which is something that concerned the Decadents (as shall be seen in the next chapter). The didactic/realist novel, therefore, not only reflects and perpetuates the capitalist way of life, it also integrates perfectly into the capitalist business system through its commodification.

Therefore, the bourgeoisie saw art as serving a function: to perpetuate the bourgeois way of life by promoting its morals and values and by supporting them with religious backing. Those values included hard work, family and reproduction, respectability, philanthropy and altruism. Art, therefore, was useful - it had a use-value and a purpose in a similar way to how the bourgeois capitalist's life was purposeful and useful. As a consequence, the life of the artist was also purposeful and useful. The rejection of this conception of art (and of the artist) could result in dire consequences for the bourgeoisie's dominance over the sphere of culture, and hence undermine their place as the ruling class somewhat. The Decadent Movement's anti-bourgeois ideology was a legitimate threat to bourgeois dominance in culture. Therefore, the Decadents needed to be silenced and the press became involved in attacks against non-conformist art and artists. With this view in mind, I now turn to the French Decadent Movement.

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