The philosophical foundations of Aestheticism were formulated in the eighteenth century by Immanuel Kant, who spoke for the autonomy of art. Art was to exist for its own sake, for its own essence or beauty. The artist was not to be concerned about morality or utility or even the pleasure that a work might bring to its audience. Aestheticism was supported in Germany by J. W. von Goethe and in England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle.
Benjamin Constant first used the phrase l'art pour l'art (French, meaning "art for art," or "art for art's sake") in 1804; Victor Cousin popularized the words that became a catch-phrase for Aestheticism in the 1890s. French writers such as Théophile Gautier and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire contributed significantly to the movement.
Oscar Wilde did not invent Aestheticism, but he was a dramatic leader in promoting the movement near the end of the nineteenth century. Wilde was especially influenced as a college student by the works of the English poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne and the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The English essayist Walter Pater, an advocate of "art for art's sake," helped to form Wilde's humanistic aesthetics in which he was more concerned with the individual, the self, than with popular movements like Industrialism or Capitalism. Art was not meant to instruct and should not concern itself with social, moral, or political guidance.
Like Baudelaire, Wilde advocated freedom from moral restraint and the limitations of society. This point of view contradicted Victorian convention in which the arts were supposed to be spiritually uplifting and instructive. Wilde went a step further and stated that the artist's life was even more important than any work that he produced; his life was to be his most important body of work.
The most important of Wilde's critical works, published in May 1891, is a volume titled Intentions. It consists of four essays: "The Decay of Lying," "Pen, Pencil and Poison," "The Critic as Artist," and "The Truth of Masks." These and the contemporary essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" affirm Wilde's support of Aestheticism and supply the philosophical context for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
"The Decay of Lying" was first published in January 1889. Wilde called it a "trumpet against the gate of dullness" in a letter to Kate Terry Lewis. The dialogue, which Wilde felt was his best, takes place in the library of a country house in Nottinghamshire. The participants are Cyril and Vivian, which were the names of Wilde's sons (the latter spelled "Vyvyan"). Almost immediately, Vivian advocates one of the tenets of Wilde's Aestheticism: Art is superior to Nature. Nature has good intentions but can't carry them out. Nature is crude, monotonous, and lacking in design when compared to Art.
According to Vivian, man needs the temperament of the true liar" with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!" Artists with this attitude will not be shackled by sterile facts but will be able to tell beautiful truths that have nothing to do with fact.
"Pen, Pencil and Poison" was first published in January 1889. It is a biographical essay on the notorious writer, murderer, and forger Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who used the pen name "Janus Weathercock."
Wilde's approach is that Wainewright's criminal activities reveal the soul of a true artist. The artist must have a "concentration of vision and intensity of purpose" that exclude moral or ethical judgment. True aesthetes belong to the "elect," as Wilde calls them in "The Decay of Lying," and are beyond such concerns. As creative acts, there is no significant difference between art and murder. The artist often will conceal his identity behind a mask, but Wilde maintains that the mask is more revealing than the actual face. Disguises intensify the artist's personality. Life itself is an art, and the true artist presents his life as his finest work. Wilde, who attempted to make this distinction in his own life through his attempts to re-create himself, includes this theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The longest of the essays in Intentions, "The Critic as Artist," first appeared in two parts (July and September 1890) with the significant title, "The True Function and Value in Criticism; With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing: A Dialogue." It is considered to be a response to Matthew Arnold's essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1865). Arnold's position is that the creative faculty is higher than the critical. The central thesis of Wilde's essay is that the critic must reach beyond the creative work that he considers.
The setting of the dialogue is a library in a house in London's Piccadilly area overlooking Green Park, and the principal characters are Gilbert and Ernest.
Along with the central theme of the importance of the critic, Gilbert espouses the significance of the individual. The man makes the times; the times do not make the man. Further, he advocates that "Sin is an essential element of progress." Sin helps assert individuality and avoid the monotony of conformity. Rules of morality are non-creative and, thus, evil.
The best criticism must cast off ordinary guidelines, especially those of Realism, and accept the aesthetics of Impressionism — what a reader feels when reading a work of literature rather than what a reader thinks, or reasons, while reading. The critic must transcend literal events and consider the "imaginative passions of the mind." The critic should not seek to explain a work of art but should seek to deepen its mystery.
"The Truth of Masks" first appeared in May 1885 under the title "Shakespeare and Stage Costume." The essay originally was a response to an article written by Lord Lytton in December 1884, in which Lytton argues that Shakespeare had little interest in the costumes that his characters wear. Wilde takes the opposite position.
More important within the context of Intentions, Wilde himself always put great emphasis on appearance and the masks, or costumes, with which the artist or individual confronts the world.
Wilde also raises the question of self-contradiction. In art, he says, there is no such thing as an absolute truth: "A Truth is that whose contradictory is also true." This sentiment recalls Wilde's tremendous respect for the thoughts of Walt Whitman. In "Song of Myself," Whitman writes, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)."
"The Soul of Man Under Socialism" first appeared in February 1891. In it, Wilde expresses his Aesthetics primarily through the emphasis that the essay places on the individual. In an unusual interpretation of socialism, Wilde believed that the individual would be allowed to flourish under the system. He thus warns against tyrannical rulers and concludes that the best form of government for the artist is no government at all.
In this essay, it's easy to see that Wilde loved to shock. If Walt Whitman wanted to wake the world with his "barbaric yawp," Wilde preferred aphorisms, paradox, irony, and satire. While Wilde wouldn't want to be accused of sincerity, he was certainly devoted to Aestheticism in his life as well as his art.