Wilde and Pater’s understanding of art and decadence

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The quarter began with an excerpt from the conclusion of Walter Pater’s 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry and now ends with Oscar Wilde’s 1894 prose poem “The Artist.” Pater’s writing anticipates the decadent ethos, and Wilde’s poem gives form to it. The two, taken together, celebrate art as the purveyor of the transient, ecstatic experience on which decadent writers place so much value. The moment is privileged over the forever, the ecstatic over the moral, and the experience itself over the “fruit of experience” (Pater).

“To maintain […] ecstasy,” Pater writes, “is success in life.” Art, he says, should not be didactic or advance any moral claims. One does not correctly observe art in an act of self-improvement; the moment of observation is the only moment that matters to Pater. It is “simply for those moments’ sake” that art is observed (Pater). The Pater excerpt offers an illuminating distillation (if even there is one) of the decadent credo: the exaltation of the moment as transcendent and life-fulfilling. Des Esseintes’ purpose in retreating to his museum of fine taste is not, as might be concluded after a facile reading, the achievement of enlightenment or some higher morality. He is transfixed by the painting of Salome for what frisson of excitement it arouses in him–the moment of observation provides him with “never-ending ecstasy”  (Against Nature 44). It’s not erudition but the experience of encounter that Des Esseintes seeks. He has undertaken what Pater calls life’s “one desperate effort to see and touch.”

Wilde in “The Artist” offers a similar account of art’s value. The artist in question has created something that commemorates “the one thing that he had loved in life” (Wilde 900). This image, then, holds emotional importance to the creator. It is the “sign of the love of man that dieth not,” an artistic rendering of the most powerful human feeling (Wilde 900). A traditional understanding of art’s value might lead one to celebrate this creation as the most beautiful, the most important, of objects to the creator. It would seem to be his chef d’oeuvre, the first among all others in the hierarchy of his creations. But Wilde’s understanding of art’s value is, of course, not traditional, and the object is quite suddenly “set in a great furnace” and destroyed (Wilde 900). The bronze image in memorial of his deceased love, the sorrow that endureth for ever, has been destroyed to make possible the creation of the image of “the pleasure that abideth for a moment.” Nowhere clearer is the decadent disposition toward art evident. Value in art is found not in the forever, but in the moment. The image of his dead love might encourage the artist to recover, might provide him with a comforting souvenir of a companion lost, but that is of little importance: the value of the experience of the new image is greater. Wilde, it is evident, espouses Pater’s characterization of art’s value. It “comes to you,” Pater writes, “proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” The creation of the artist has value only for the experience it provides, and once this experience has passed, it might as well be cast into the furnace.

-BPB (547)

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