What Is Art?: Oscar Wilde in the Pursuit of Beauty – Aestheticism and “The Decay of Lying”

The Victorian Era is one of the most interesting periods of time to examine when looking at art. Literature, architecture, fashion, painting, and music were blooming and having great changes from what they had been before. Many artists from that period had a large impact, and they remain prevalent and influential today. It could be affirmed that many of them have also grown to be icons in multiple subcultures and fields. Oscar Wilde is probably one of the most recognized figures in literature of that time, in spite of having only published one novel throughout his lifetime. A day like today, 168 years ago, Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. Being the anniversary of his death, it is only fair to exalt the contributions that he made and continues to make in society. Throughout his life, and after his life, he has stood out from the norm and challenged many of the views, standards, and roles both in his art and in his personal life. This has positioned him as a prominent inspirational model for transformation and non-conformism in society.

From the year 1860 to 1900, the Aestheticism Movement was flourishing in Great Britain among many artists. Unsurprisingly, Oscar Wilde was one of the main representatives of this movement which essentially took place all throughout his lifetime. Oscar Wilde’s behaviors, thoughts, and presentation were unconventional for his time, and thus, it made him a suitable personality for a movement that denied the ideals of this period. Aestheticism appeared from the rejection of Victorian society’s industrialization, materialism, and conservative views: “The Aesthetic Movement was an artistic expression of ‘art for art’s sake.’ Disavowing notions of literature’s societal necessity.” (Allit). Artists who pertained to this movement opposed the belief that art needed to have a purpose or a sense of morality, which was the main current of thought then: “Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new æsthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance (…)” (Wilde 20). This didn’t mean that art didn’t have a purpose, but rather that that did not define it.

Aestheticism attempted to give a new answer to the good old question: What is art? People have been trying to define art since its beginning. Wilde himself contributed with his answers to this questions through his writing: “The Aesthetic Movement in fin-de-siècle England, as interpreted by Oscar Wilde, revolved around the ideal that the utility of one’s actions should be to create the maximal amount of beauty and pleasure in one’s life, and nothing more.” (Duggan 67). The pursuit of beauty appears to be one of the main components in which Wilde was interested in. His only novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, impulses a conversation around the themes that were often being discussed in this movement. This text, just as most of his pieces, dismantled, questioned, and deconstructed the idea of art and beauty, and what it serves.

In his essay “The Decay of Lying”, Oscar Wilde submerges himself fully into the topic of art, its meaning, and its purpose. Through the conversation of two characters–Cyril and Vivian–, he displays his conception of art. A clear emphasis on expression, beauty, pleasure, and creativeness can be found in his writing. For Wilde, art should reject realism, restrictions, and moral expectations: “The highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit, and gains more from a new medium or a fresh material than she does from any enthusiasm for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of the human consciousness. She develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols.” (Wilde 20). He exalts art as a separate entity from everything else in the world, even in the same plane and significance as Life itself.

Art takes a protagonic role in the world as something that should be valued and viewed outside of the scope of everything else. “The Decay of Lying” expresses that people experience life the way that they do because of art and not the other way around. In fact, he was the first person to point out the popular notion that says that life mirrors art: “(…) it is none the less true that Life imitates Art far more than Art Imitates Life.” (Wilde 14). These were core sentiments found in aestheticism. The personification of art as a separate entity–almost as a living creature–was a distinct and innovative form of understanding the idea behind “art for art’s sake.” Oscar Wilde permitted art to be just art:

‘Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the “forms more real than living man,” and hers the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but unfinished copies. (Wilde 13)

Oscar Wilde’s appreciation for art went beyond the current of thought of his time and did not conform to the rules that had been previously established. His unconventionality, non-conformism, and rebellion were incredibly impactful for the society of his time and today. Wilde did not just represent aestheticism in his art but in his life as a whole. He lived his life challenging the norms, purpose, and expectations in the pursuit of beauty–just like art: Wilde for Wilde’s sake.


Allit, Patrick. Oscar Wilde’s Role in Literature’s “Aesthetic Movement”. Wondrium Daily, 2019, https://www.wondriumdaily.com/oscar-wildes-role-in-literatures-aesthetic-movement
Duggan, Patrick. The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Boston University Arts & Sciences Writing Program. https://www.bu.edu/writingprogram/journal/past-issues/issue-1/duggan/#:~:text=The%20Aesthetic%20Movement%20in%20fin,one%27s%20life%2C%20and%20nothing%20more
The Art Story. The Aesthetic Movement. https://www.theartstory.org/movement/aesthetic-art/ 
Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying – An Observation. 1891, 1-24.

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