Chapter 1: The Concept of Art in the Victorian Era and at the Turn of the Century
The concept of art has always been problematic depending on the history of a particular era. Art has always been believed to reflect the age to which it belongs. The artist is generally considered to be endowed with a power, be it imagination, inspiration or genius that is not present in other individuals. In what follows, I will examine the condition of art and artist during two problematic eras in the history of British and German literature: Victorianism and Turn of the Century. The scrutiny will focus on the general cultural background on which art emerges, on the common features that relate these two different cultures and epochs, on the controversial beliefs regarding the role of the artist in society and on the relationship between art and life. All the arguments presented in this chapter will be sustained with illustrations from Oscar Wilde’s British Victorian novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and Thomas Mann’s Modern novella Death in Venice.
Both Victorianism and Modernism will be remembered as two epochs that brought significant changes in the history of the humanity.
Oscar Wilde is associated with the modernity of the Victorian Age, with its accent on progress, individuality and technology. His controversial attitude is very often compared with that of the philosopher Nietzsche in their transvaluation of values in the second half of the twentieth century. The Victorians were very much concerned with cultivating moral, economic, and social values, while Nietzsche regarded value as a tool of dominating the others and suggested instead a radical perspectivism and skepticism. Oscar Wilde’s philosophy also brought critique to the Victorian values and promoted postmodern skepticism.
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The center of Victorian modernists’ interest consisted of the pursuit of material well being, freedom from Nature, the pursuit of knowledge and truth, freedom from ignorance and superstitions, the pursuit of justice and freedom from political and economical tyranny. The Victorians wanted to control the physical world through the use of science and technology, confident in the objectivity of their knowledge and in the liberal tenets of individual freedom, equality, and autonomy. However, Oscar Wilde argued in his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” that under the Victorian good intentions there were ways of oppressing, and that the most cherished words “freedom” and “individualism” masked, in fact, differences and inequalities. With the voice of one of his protagonists, Wilde described his age as “limited and vulgar, grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims” (Wilde 45).
Wilde saw the “self”, not rational and progressive, as Victorians presented it, but as socially constructed. That is why Dorian Gray finds himself in a society that prefers form to substance: “Society, civilised society, at least, is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating” (Wilde 107). The narrator goes on and says that “it feels instinctively that manners are of more importance than morals” (Wilde 107). And Lord Henry argues the fact that “the costume of the nineteenth century is detestable. It is so somber, so depressing. Sin is the only real colour element left in modern life” (Wilde 37).
Nietzsche, like Wilde, saw a fundamental crisis in the modern progress of science and the rise of German state. He was against the conventional opinions of his period because they limited human experience. What the German philosopher wanted to accomplish was the fact that individuals should understand that life is not governed by rational and moral principles. The modern man, Nietzsche believes, inhabits a world characterised by words and reason and he therefore can only perceive the surface of things, while disregarding the valuable world of feelings and instincts. Like Wilde, Nietzsche considered that modern society transformed the individual into a victim of the excessive progress of the logical faculties at the expense of individuals’ will and instinct. As Oscar Wilde confesses in his novel, “intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration and destroys the harmony of any face” (Wilde 9).
Individuals that are products of the society in which they live can never become true artists. According to Nietzsche, authentic artists have the power to recognise the dark and mysterious world of instinct and to use it with the purpose of creating original, life-long works of art. True artists are those who become who they are. Nietzsche’s philosophy is encountered in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray when Lord Henry Wotton argues the fact that: “The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly. People are afraid of themselves nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self” (Wilde 25). Moreover, Nietzsche as well as Oscar Wilde were against the morality of the society because they considered that it constrained the individuals making them weak and slave, “the terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion, these are the two things that govern us” (Wilde 25).
Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann, two writers belonging to different cultures and eras are related through their main preoccupation with cultivating artistic beauty in their works. While Wilde was strongly influenced by the theory of the Aesthetic Movement, Thomas Mann was attracted to Nietzsche’s philosophy of art. A careful analysis of both the Aesthetic Movement and of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art demonstrates the fact that they are characterised by common features also encountered in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and in Mann’s novella, Death in Venice.
The Victorian ethos held that art’s purpose was to identify “sweetness and light.” For the Victorians, art was meant to be edifying and educational. The Aesthetic Movement appeared as a reaction against limited Victorian art and it expanded throughout Europe. Artists began to seek freedom not just from the rules of academic art, but also from the demands of the public. Under the banner “art for art’s sake,” the movement promoted the status of the artist as a superiour, heroic individual, ignored conventional respectability and placed emphasis on sensuous detail and exaltation of poetic expression above thought.
The Victorian request that art should instruct, delight or moralise was quickly replaced by art’s purpose of cultivating beauty. Unlike Victorian art which was required to be rational and moral, the Aesthetic Movement cultivated beauty in art. In The Picture of Dorian Gray,Lord Henry promoted the superiority of beauty over reason: “People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders” (Wilde 30). In Death in Venice, Gustav Aschenbach confesses that “In almost every artist’s nature is inborn a wonton and treacherous proneness to side with the beauty that breaks hearts” (Mann 441).
Oscar Wilde was a major proponent of the Aesthetic Movement whose philosophies are reflected in his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The novel shocked conventional critics and readers because it revealed the denial of the established code, of prudery and Victorian reticence. The characters’ revelations about soul, their pursuit of pleasure and their treatment of art, all reflect the ideas supported by the aesthetes’ philosophy of life and art. Subtle philosophical examination of the idea and character, expression of a biting awareness of cultural and personal decadence and social and moral decline constitutes the central theme to Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde’s artistic creed, which he develops in his novel, is clearly stated in his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism:”
A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist. (Wilde 34)
This quotation clearly emphasises the fact that the artist adhering to the Aesthetic Movement believed in art as a self-sufficient entity whose ultimate goal is to participate in or be united with that which is beautiful.
For Nietzsche, like for the Aesthetic Movement, art represents the highest expression of human spirit. It does not imitate nature, as the Victorians claimed, but it transcends it. Like Vivian, Wilde’s spokesperson in “The Decay of Lying”, points out: “the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature”. Nature’s crude imperfections and unfinished condition, its failure to fulfill its good intentions, is a cause of art: “Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place” (Wilde 56) and “Nature herself shivers with ecstasy when the mind bows down in homage before beauty” (Mann 460). Art is only for art’s sake, that is, art justifies itself and does not need a purpose, be it moral or rational because art is a purpose in itself: “It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty” (Wilde 29). Nietzsche encouraged artists to freely express themselves in their works of art without taking into consideration society’s values and conventions. Furthermore, the Aesthetic Movement encouraged people to simply enjoy art without trying to judge it by labeling it as beautiful or ugly or by its authors. As Lord Henry points out in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “good artists exist simply in what they make and, consequently, are perfectly uninteresting in what they are” (Wilde 68).
Although the Aesthetic Movement faded at the beginning of the twentieth century, it still influenced modern writers. The Aesthetic Movement left behind a strong belief that artists must resist society’s pressures and demands. Freed from the responsibility of combating social evil in their works, artists were encouraged to move towards abstraction and to devote themselves completely to pure aestheticism. The new writings of the early 1900, such as those of Thomas Mann, although not removed from society, showed an assertive confidence in artistic independence.
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Through the whole range of Mann’s fictions, art is regarded as a seduction from the clear duties of life, a giving-in, a giving-over of the self to a realm dubious, enthralling, disgraceful, yet necessary with its own unique necessity. In his art there are nightmares, disease, criminality, madness and death, but also exhalation, power, courage and even grace. The artist must expose himself at the cost of health, reason, even life and love.
Following Nietzsche’s philosophy and, implicitly, the Aesthetic Movement creed, Thomas Mann was concerned with the role of the artist and the meaning of art in an emotionally barren modernist society. In his attempt to depict the society of his time and the artist’s development within it, Mann was influenced by Nietzsche’s unconventional ideas which he explored and referred to in almost all his writings. In Death in Venice, in particular, Thomas Mann portrays within one human being the very German tension between the “artist” and the “citizen.” The protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach, struggles with a number of ungovernable conflicts revolving around his craft, his community and his social position. He is a German who aims as a writer to enhance the status of Germany, but he is also an artist with an individual creative imagination. He enjoys the bourgeois lifestyle and the social prestige that his work has brought him, but he also bitterly fights with suppressed unconscious desires that threaten his lifestyle. He refuses to acknowledge them and, ultimately, his seemingly secure social personality will disintegrate under the force of these unconscious desires.
In his work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche underlines the idea that artistic creation depends on a collaboration between two opposite forces, which he terms the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian.” The Apollonian side of an individual’s personality is characterized by exaggerated rationality, sobriety and detachment, while the Dionysian side is described as passionate, self-forgetting, instinctual. In the process of self-development which both Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde considered of primary importance, artists should acknowledge both these forces because both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are necessary in the creation of authentic art.
In both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Death in Venice, the works of civilisation require repression and sublimation that tend to go too far, threatening to heighten the sense of guilt and to exhaust binding forms. Both Victorian and Modern German societies demanded artists to be somber, stiff, and moral, that is, too Apollonian. However, the result may be a breakthrough of destructive unacknowledged forces. As Lord Henry notices in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Self-denial mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle, broods in the mind and poison us” (Wilde 25).
The importance that Thomas Mann gives to the role of art in his works makes him a proponent of the Aesthetic Movement, like Oscar Wilde. In his novella, Death in Venice, in particular, Thomas Mann acknowledges the necessary presence of true art in a somber society:
Yes, personally speaking too, art heightens life. She gives deeper joy, she consumes more swiftly. She engraves adventures of the spirit and the mind in the faces of her votaries; let them lead outwardly a life of the most cloistered calm, she will in the end produce in them a fastidiousness, an over-refinement, a nervous fever and exhaustion, such as a career of extravagant passions and pleasures can hardly show. (Mann 429)
Thomas Mann clearly states the fact that artists have not an easy responsibility, that although art gives them “deeper joy,” it might also “consumes them more swiftly.” Divided selves between society’s demands and their souls’ desire to portray beauty, artists bitterly struggle in their attempt to find a balance between the two.
Basil Hallward and Gustav Aschenbach’s desire for Dorian and Tadzio is itself hifgly aestheticised. Both Hallward and Aschenbach are fascinated not so much by the real flesh of the boys, as by the way in which beautifully graceful gestures have alighted on these young men. Basil describes Dorian as possessing “all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek, the harmony of soul and body” (Wilde 17), while Tadzio’s beauty recalled Gustav “the noblest moment of Greek sculpture, pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity” (Mann 440). However, Dorian and Tadzio double the problem of Victorian and of modern art because they are too beautiful forms on deceitful and sickly foundations. While Dorian’s beauty is continuously judged and not rightly understood by his Victorian society, Tadzio’s teeth enamel is too thin and he has too white pallor that Aschenbach relates to anemia.
Artists are permanently in danger of identifying and being identified with their art. Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Death in Venice are concerned with depicting the relationship between life and art. The protagonists that best exemplify this relationship are the painter Basil Hallward and the actress Sybil Vane in Wilde’s novel and Gustav Aschenbach in Mann’s novella.
Initially, Basil Hallward believes that art reveals the artist more than it shows the subject of the artistic creation: “every portrait that is painted with a feeling is a portrait of the artists, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the portrait; it is the painter who reveals himself” (Wilde 11). Thus, his ideas, life and character are related to the art he produces, he identifies with his art. However, by the middle of the novel, Basil Hallward’s conception of art changes dramatically and he acknowledges that “Art is always more abstract than we fancy. It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him” (Wilde 134).
Another character that identifies, or rather, is identified with her art is Sybil Vane. Before meeting Dorian Gray, Sybil lives for her art, enjoys and succeeds in identifying with the roles she performs. Whoever saw Sybil performing on the stage had the sensation of living a real and authentic moment. However, when she falls in love with Dorian, Sybil shifts her interest and attention from her art to her lover. She will be confronted with the most dramatic moment of her life when she discovers that, in fact, Dorian has never loved herself, but her art, that he always identified her with the art she performed and fell in love with the latter: “You have killed my love! I loved you because you were marvelous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realised the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. Without your art you are nothing” (Wilde 102).
In Death in Venice, Gustav Aschenbach is the classic writer who devotes his entire life to his artistic creation. His life revolves around his art of creating masterpieces meant to rise up to his society’s expectations: “He had learned to sit at his desk and sustain and live up to his growing reputation, to write gracious and pregnant phrases in letters that must needs to be brief, for many claims press upon the solid and successful man” (Mann 423). He is protected by this routine and when he decides to go on vacation, disaster overtakes him. Aschenbach heroically dies in his attempt to give his art a new shift of perspective, changing his focus for the public demands of the society to depicting beauty.
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