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When Art and Morality Collide

From Rossetti to Wilde

By James Swafford | HUMANITIES, July/August 1997 | Volume 18, Number 4

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about," says Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, "and that is not being talked about." He would approve of the Victorian revival taking place in America this year -- with a film of Wilde and two major art shows appearing around the country. As close as a catalog are household items such as Morris throws, books of Wildean epigrams, and wall calendars of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's beautifully dreamy women.

Yet this art, now so domesticated and commercial, was once talked about in tones that call to mind attacks a few years ago on Mapplethorpe and Rushdie. A mid-nineteenth-century critic called Pre-Raphaelite art "pictorial blasphemy." A reviewer found in Rossetti's painting and verse "nothing completely sane" and declared the themes of the poetry "simply nasty." Wilde's Dorian Gray was "a poisonous book," stinking of "moral and spiritual putrefaction."

In England last June and July, fifteen school teachers and I studied some of these texts in a summer seminar called "Two Aesthetes: D. G. Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, and the Subversions of Art," supported by the NEH and hosted by the Ithaca College London Center. We were reading not just the texts themselves, but also some of the reactions they provoked. We considered ways in which art might be perceived as subversive, gaining in the process some perspective on arts-related controversies flaring in our own time.

What purpose do literature and the visual arts serve? What responsibilities must they assume? These were important questions in the last century, as increasing literacy, inexpensive editions, the rise of lending libraries, public art exhibitions, and mass-produced prints from steel engravings made the verbal and visual arts available to the masses as never before. Influenced by Evangelical attitudes, art was expected to contribute to moral education. Both Rossetti and Wilde ran afoul of that expectation on several occasions, Wilde with full intentionality: "All art is quite useless," announces the last line of the preface to Dorian Gray.

Our seminar began with some visual texts from London art exhibitions in 1849, paintings bearing the mysterious initials PRB. When the next year the plot was revealed -- that a secret society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Millais as ringleaders of the conspiracy, was rebelling against conventional academic painting -- reviewers exploded in vituperation.

A modern gallery goer can scarcely recognize Millais's painting of Christ in the House of His Parents in Charles Dickens's abusive rhetoric:

In the foreground of that carpenter's shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, . . . and . . . a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.

Dickens's fury reminds us that if a representation upsets the categories upon which we rely to understand experience -- categories like "public/private" or "male/female" or "high/low" - - it can take on intense and symbolic importance and become a convenient focus for society's anxieties, a battleground in culture wars. Certainly Millais's representation of the divine in images that Dickens associates with human degradation and wickedness could be offensive enough. But in the context of the Anglo-Catholic revival and the approaching re-establishment of a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, the dirty and twisted bodies, which signified the spirit through a mortification of the flesh, also had political meaning to a Protestant viewer. For Dickens, this work of art was "sign and emblem" of a "great retrogressive principle" at work in the culture. Turning for artistic models to the painters before Raphael was to him as absurd and destructive as turning back to a world before Harvey or Galileo or Chaucer, to ignorance and superstition.

Being "retrogressive" in a progressive era may be a serious fault; being "fleshly" and "aesthetic" in an age of moral earnestness may be worse, as Rossetti discovered when poet and critic Robert Buchanan attacked him and his work in "The Fleshly School of Poetry" (1871). However much the PRB had offended the establishment, at least most of the members had insisted on the importance of the arts as "moral guides," to quote Pre-Raphaelite Brother F. G. Stephens. Several of Hunt's most familiar canvases, for instance, are brilliantly colored sermons on the subject of duty. Even in the early days of Pre-Raphaelitism, however, Rossetti had expressed doubts about art designed to be morally uplifting: the painter-hero of his short story "Hand and Soul" (1850) tries through art to inspire "moral greatness," only to witness his frescoes of Peace being spattered by blood shed in a vendetta. Rossetti's poems so successfully avoided blatant moralizing that Buchanan, who concentrated on the sexy ones, saw in them no moral value at all. Privileging form at the expense of meaningful content and animal passion at the expense of conventional morality, the poems and Rossetti himself, Buchanan wrote, were "never spiritual, never tender, always self-conscious and aesthetic."

Sometimes one has the eerie feeling that Buchanan was quoting from arts-funding debates of our own recent past. He presented Rossetti as less an artist than a fraud who is laughing at his gullible audience, "parading his private sensations" in public, and "spreading the seeds of disease," all his nasty activities defended by an elitist "mutual admiration school" of fellow artists. Interestingly, Buchanan's charges struck a chord in some of my colleagues in the seminar. True, Buchanan remained the villain of the episode: he quoted out of context and hid behind a pseudonym. No teacher will put up with that sort of behavior. But wasn't Buchanan right, for example, that Rossetti in the poem "Jenny" regarding the title-character, a prostitute, "tender compassion in one eye and aesthetic enjoyment in the other"? How socially engaged are these lines? --

Your silk ungirlded and unlac'd
And warm sweets open to the waist,
All golden in the lamplight's gleam . . .

Is Jenny not just the fetishistic object of the male gaze? Buchanan despised this "aesthetic" vision of woman for its fleshliness; the modern reader worries that it reinforces gender stereotypes. A century and a quarter after Buchanan used the term as a club against Rossetti, the "aesthetic" label remains a weapon with which a critic can do damage.

Whereas Rossetti in the early 1870s vigorously defended himself against the charge of aestheticism, Oscar Wilde by the end of the decade was pleased to be a leading spokesman of the aesthetic creed. He had found philosophical justification in a "golden book," a "holy write of beauty": Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) by Oxford don Walter Pater. In the conclusion of his book of essays, contemplation reveals to Pater that all is in flux and that any "clear outlines" we perceived are merely our own mental constructs, impressions that we group together under an image and lend an illusory coherence by assigning a name. All we really know are our momentary impressions. Our purpose in living is to perceive the intensest moments for their own sake. For Wilde, the individual vision thus became all-important, truth in art thoroughly problematical. He saw art as "the telling of beautiful untrue things" or the offering of a truth "whose contradictory is also true." Style and form matter, not moral purpose. In fact, "ethical sympathy" is nothing but "an unpardonable mannerism" in an artist.

Pater's sense of a world in which "all melts under our feet" is not unlike the feeling one has while reading Wilde. Again and again Wilde challenges the reader's expectations: with epigrams that twist traditional sayings into new forms that seem just as true as the old ones; with poems that seem careless of the high value that the era places on originality; with a play that makes a dandy a more moral being than the public man destined to be prime minister; with a short story (or a critical essay? or a hoax?) titled "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." written to show, as the opposing barrister phrased it at one of Wilde's trials, "that Shakespeare's sonnets were suggestive of unnatural vice" (or written, as Wilde replied, "to show that they are not"). Even with The Picture of Dorian Gray, one isn't quite sure what sort of poison one has ingested. Could the novel be a critique of the aesthetic approach to life, showing how evil it is when it impinges upon the lives and others and treats them as means rather than ends? Or is Dorian a poor excuse for an aesthete, being really just a conspicuous consumer better dressed than most and plagued with a rather bourgeois conscience?

The hostility of the middle classes, who felt mocked by Wilde and the aesthetic movement can perhaps best be traced in the satires published in the humor magazine Punch. George du Maurier's cartoons of the early 1880s were fairly good natured in their mockery of the affectations and effeminacy of the fleshly poet Postlethwaite and the aesthetic painter Maudle. But an ominous November 1894 article featured Wilde and his soon-to-be-revealed lover Lord Alfred Douglas as two languid, straw-stuffed Guy Fawkes effigies joggled about in carts by their "youthful disciples," who plan to blow them up with the fireworks and burn them in the traditional fifth of November bonfire. Though the two are saved from immolation by being confiscated by a policeman, the narrator calls them "martyrs whose apotheosis is merely postponed."

The postponement was brief. At the trials in 1895 which led to his conviction for "acts of gross indecency" with other male persons, Wilde and his texts were read with terrible simplicity: beneath all the posturing and posing was moral rottenness. The real danger of art deemed subversive may not be that it infects the culture, but that it provides an opportunity to define threatened boundaries more rigidly. Pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis recognized as early as 1898 that Wilde's public disgrace had helped to establish the very categories of heterosexual and homosexual. Later, Alan Sinfield wrote in The Wilde Century, "Even attempts to challenge the system help to maintain it. Perhaps art cannot be effectively "subversive" at all."

Wilde's famous statement that life imitates art is not a bad place to start thinking about the relationship and possibility, as Wendy Steiner has recently argued in The Scandal of Pleasure, that our culture is confusing the virtuality of art with the reality of life. What makes us think that books can poison anyone (that is, by the way, what Dorian Gray thinks a book has done to him) or that a play like Angels in America can indoctrinate an audience in Charlotte, North Carolina? How utilitarian do we want our literature to be? The Victorian aesthetes invite us to enjoy what Wilde calls "the unique result of a unique temperament" for its own sake, not for the sake of developing or displaying our moral or political virtue. How important is the pleasure in the experience of art? Jack Worthing in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest has no doubts: "Oh pleasure, pleasure," he tells his friend, "What else should bring one anywhere?"

About the Author

James Swafford is an associate professor of English at Ithaca College in New York.

Funding Information

He received $61,912 from the Division of Research and Education to conduct a summer seminar for school teachers in 1996.