The Text is a Pretext: An Analysis of Pater’s and Wilde’s Aesthetic Theories

By: Elianne Neuman

Two leading intellectuals of late Victorian England, Walter Pater, a professor at Oxford, and Oscar Wilde, a respected author and playwright, explore the topic of aesthetic theory in their respective works, Studies in the History of the Renaissance and “The Critic as Artist.” As members of a notoriously restrictive and moralistic society, both Pater and Wilde had to suppress their sexual orientation in order to be accepted by their contemporaries. While they do not explicitly discuss their homosexuality in their works on aesthetics, a close textual analysis

of their writings indicates that their orientation led them to criticize Victorian society through their aesthetic theory. Indeed, their writings reveal their distinct coping mechanisms to deal with their repressive environment: while both challenge Victorian notions of morality by asserting the inherent worth of art, Pater turns inward and removes himself from the collective, whereas Wilde actively engages with his society by attempting to overturn its aesthetic hierarchy and, in so doing, the very social norms that condemned homosexuality.

Pater’s support for subjective, impressionist aesthetic criticism in his book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, was revolutionary in Victorian England. The topic of aesthetic criticism became the subject of much debate in the Victorian Era following the publication of Matthew Arnold’s essay, “The Function of Criticism in the Present Time,” inwhich he advocates for disinterested aesthetic criticism and objective cultural standards. Although Pater seemingly voices his agreement with Arnold, the aesthetic theory that he sets forth in the continuation of that same sentence of agreement is, in fact, in direct contradiction to the position of his contemporary: “‘To see the object as in itself it really is,’ has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever; and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is . . .” According to Pater, aesthetic criticism must be subjective, not objective, because “Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness.” As such, Pater believes that the sole qualification of a competent critic is not his education or his status, but his appreciation of beauty: “What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects.” Pater differentiates himself from other Victorian theorists by advocating for an impressionistic, as opposed to an objective, aesthetic criticism.

Although Pater did not affiliate with the Decadent movement in late nineteenth-century England, his subjective approach to aesthetic criticism was, in and of itself, a promotion of pleasure and passion. Pater writes that art should be judged based on the emotion it incites in the viewer and, as such, he instructs critics to ask themselves the following questions as they evaluate a piece of art: “What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure?

And if so, what sort or degree of pleasure?” While his Victorian contemporaries decried this pursuit of pleasure to be immoral, Pater asserts that passion is integral to success in life:

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

 In Pater’s estimation, these experiences of ecstasy were best achieved through “the love of art for its own sake . . . For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” By advocating for a life led in search of pleasure and ecstasy, for art for its own sake, Pater ultimately poses a great challenge to the Victorian notions of morality, to the very social norms that forbade him from revealing his true sexual orientation.

Not only does Pater diverge from his Victorian contemporaries by advocating for impressionist criticism and pleasurable experiences, but he also rejects their belief that culture ought to be collective. While Arnold advocates for universal aesthetic standards, Pater asserts that, since the human condition is one of isolation, aesthetic theory must be individualistic.According to Pater, there can be no collective cultural standards because:

The whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us… Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner in its own dream of a world.

Indeed, Pater’s personal condition was characterized by loneliness, as he chose to remove himself from society and was known to be a recluse. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that Pater’s subjective, individualistic approach to aesthetics is a reflection of his reclusiveness, of his self-imposed isolation from the Victorian society that showed no tolerance for his sexual orientation.

Like Pater, the popular novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde advocates for art for its own sake in his essay, “The Artist as Critic.” While Pater is hesitant to criticize his contemporaries, Wilde structures his essay as a dialogue between Ernest, who originally subscribes to the standard Victorian approach to aesthetics, and Gilbert, who ultimately convinces his friend to recognize the virtues of aesthetic criticism. This debate between Ernest and Gilbert provides Wilde with the opportunity to forcefully refute Arnold’s belief in objective criticism, as evidenced by the following passage:

ERNEST. The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it is really not; that is your theory, I believe?

GILBERT. Yes, that is my theory. To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes.

 Wilde further strays from Arnold’s position by upholding the aesthetic theory of the Decadents, who argued that utility is an inappropriate basis for evaluating art, “as it has least reference to any external standard to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and, as the Greeks would put it, in itself, to itself, an end.” By promoting the inherent value of art, Wilde rejects the utilitarian approach to aesthetics and, in so doing, positions himself as a leader of the Decadent movement in late nineteenth-century England.

Wilde undermines Victorian notions of morality not only by asserting the inherent worth of art, but also by advocating that aesthetic criticism is, in and of itself, the highest form of art. In so doing, Wilde overturns the aesthetic hierarchy set forth by Plato in the Republic: everything in this world is just a shadow of an ideal form that is not visible to the human eye and, as such, art is pointless because it is simply a representation of a representation. The Victorians, having embraced this Platonic worldview, likewise maintained that aesthetic criticism is even more worthless than art, as it is just a copy of a copy of a copy of the ideal form. However, Wilde inverts this hierarchy by asserting that aesthetic criticism is the ideal form of art: “just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word.” Wilde asserts that “the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation.” By inverting the Platonic aesthetic hierarchy that his contemporaries had adopted, Wilde ultimately undermines Victorian notions of morality, the very social norms that censured the expression of his sexuality.

A close reading of Pater’s and Wilde’s writings on aesthetic theory reveals how they each react to Victorian society’s condemnation of their homosexuality. While both challenge contemporary notions of morality by advocating for pleasure and decadence, for art for its own sake, Pater disassociates himself from the collective and Wilde engages with his society by rejecting its aesthetic hierarchy and, by extension, its social norms. In both cases, the text is a pretext: since Pater and Wilde could not address Victorian moral objections to homosexuality directly, they turn to aesthetic theory as a proxy in order to criticize their repressive society. Ultimately, their rejection of Victorian aesthetic theory is an expression of their alienation from a society that regarded their sexual orientation to be not just deviant, but immoral. 

Works Cited

Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Web.

Wilde, Oscar. The Artist as Critic. London: Allen, 1970. Web.


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