The Decay of Lying | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Decay of Lying | Context



The Aestheticism movement of the late 19th century provided the philosophical backdrop for "The Decay of Lying." This movement in the European arts sought to overthrow the overbearing and conservative Victorian traditions that prevailed at the time. Its central doctrine was l'art pour l'art ("art for art's sake"), which meant that art should exist solely for the sake of its own beauty and that it is not required to serve any political, utilitarian, or didactic purpose. Penetrating not just into art but music, fashion, literature, and interior design, the movement began as a reaction to the dominant utilitarian social philosophies of the time and the unpalatableness of the industrial age. Aesthetes believed their philosophy should not only be embraced by "high art" but should extend into everyday life. Wilde further advocated the incorporation of Aesthetic principles into the public personas individuals present to the world. Aestheticism's rejection of the didactic compulsion of art and its focus on self-expression provided the philosophical underpinnings for Wilde's essay and set the stage for Wilde to express and expand upon the movement's themes.

Key Figures

Several key figures and their philosophies on art helped influence Wilde's essay. Foremost among them was Walter Pater, an English critic at the forefront of Aestheticism who set forth his arguments for the movement in the final essay of his collection The Renaissance. Wilde declared Pater's work to be "the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty." Another key influence was the French poet Théophile Gautier (1811–72), a writer and critic who had a strong admiration for Classical forms and felt art should be impersonal, unburdened by the obligation to teach moral lessons, and strive to achieve perfection of form. His poetry technique, which he referred to as transposition d'art ("transposing art"), centered on recording the precise impressions he experienced when he encountered an artwork. Wilde also borrowed ideas from American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49). In his essay "The Poetic Principle" Poe argues that "there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than ... this poem which is a poem and nothing more ... written solely for the poem's sake."

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 18th century and entailed a shift from an economy centered on handicrafts and agrarianism to one dominated by machine manufacturing and industry. The second wave of the Industrial Revolution began in the late 19th century, included the use of natural and synthetic resources, and eventually gave rise to the automatic factory. The machine-produced goods and urbanization that resulted from the Industrial Revolution created disposable income and upward mobility among the lower classes, contributing to the development of a middle class that could afford to purchase goods as consumer markets expanded. This trend exposed serious problems in society such as the poverty of the lower classes and the concentration of people living in urban slums. This led many artists of the time to feel that art was obliged to improve society and should incorporate illustrations of conservative morality, virtuous behavior, and Chrisitan sentiments. The Aesthetes on the other hand saw no connection between art and morality, and their movement was in part born out of a reaction to this artistic trend. The Aesthetes criticized the religious and political institutions they felt were restricting the liberty of their artistic license. They sought to challenge middle-class values that still held the view that art should have an instructive or moralizing purpose—a sentiment compounded by the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

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