Last week I visited a seminar course on Oscar Wilde at New York University to speak about dandyism with the students. It was an excellent opportunity for me to hear from students of the humanities who had read the foundational texts of dandyism (D’Aurevilly’s “On Dandyism,” excerpts from Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life,” and Max Beerbohm’s “Dandies and Dandies,”) rather than just people with an interest in menswear. I had also resolved to answer any of their less typical questions on this blog, and one in particular stood out: the relationship and difference between dandyism and aestheticism. The fact that I had a dream last night about searching for a full-length oil painting of arch-Aesthete Harold Acton encouraged me to give the question some thought today.
Dandyism and Aestheticism are both personified in the public mind no more so than in the person of Oscar Wilde. By the time Wilde had first found fame, “dandy” had become an inconsequential term, mostly used dismissively and in its most colloquial sense to mean a man obsessed with the triviality of clothing and possessed of a flippant and unserious attitude. It was as a great aesthete that Wilde first won renown – by the time he had left Oxford he had gained notoriety for cooly remarking that he was trying to live up to his China, and the image of the towering Wilde in silk stockings and knee-breeches, mincing down the street clutching a sunflower, was a favorite of caricaturists on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilde’s aestheticism, inspired by his two professors, Walter Pater (who had a Romantic idea about the sublimity of art and said that one’s life should “burn with a hard, gem-like flame,”) and John Ruskin (who believed in the moral and spiritual force of art,) was so well known and easily-lampooned that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the operetta Patience satirizing the aesthetic movement, with broadly-drawn characters based on Wilde and James McNeill Whistler.
The incredible success of Patience in England led to the play’s producer hiring Wilde to go on an extensive lecture tour of America in advance of its stateside opening. The audiences went mad for Oscar Wilde, the famous aesthete, with his velvet clothes, mellifluous voice, and purple musings. Wilde lectured on the importance of beauty – on beauty being an end in itself, life’s ultimate goal, in anything from speech to wardrobe to home décor. Some of the listeners ate his philosophy up with a beautifully-wrought spoon, but most of them found his pontifications more than a little ridiculous. At Harvard a group of undergraduates entered the hall in mid-lecture dressed as they had imagined Wilde to be, and sauntered to their front-row seats, nose in air. At another University, an even crueler gang of kids put ill-fitting evening clothes on a black vagrant and paid him to dance up the aisle swinging a bouquet of lilies. In both instances, Wilde confounded them by appearing in immaculate evening dress rather than the neo-Renaissance garb they had expected, brushing their insults off like lint.
I think that Wilde, who knew better than anybody the pitfalls of being earnest, realized that he couldn’t be an aesthete with too straight a face. The majority of the public couldn’t stand for too much rhapsodizing without a modicum of irony – and that’s when Wilde truly combined the aesthete and the dandy. The dandy’s insouciant charm and unflappability were powerful when wedded to the aesthete’s glorifying mission. If the audience seemed determined to take the aesthete’s artistic prescriptions with a grain of salt, the dandy would force it all down with a lump of sugar served with a cheeky wink. Wilde was a dandy by nature, and an aesthete at least partly by education. He needed to leaven the seriousness of aestheticism with the wit of the dandy, something his professors, in their noble earnestness, had never managed to do.
The most important distinction between Dandyism and Aestheticism, however, isn’t simply their level of seriousness – it is, in fact, something much more fundamental than that. Aestheticism is a philosophy, a guiding belief chosen, if not always rationally, then at least intentionally. The follower of aestheticism has studied his subject and come to the conclusion that art is paramount in life and beauty paramount in art. Dandyism, on the other hand, is far closer to a compulsion than it is a philosophy. It is an obsession, more often than not irrational, and occasionally bordering on a psychological disorder. The true dandy cannot behave any other way. Like homosexuality, dandyism is rarely a choice and its practitioners must live by its dictates or be doomed to a life of hypocrisy, unhappiness, and the secret suffering of the underdeveloped and unfulfilled, to say nothing of cargo shorts, Croc shoes, and baseball caps. A dandy unable to be a dandy would atrophy and die, which is exactly why one sees dandyism appearing in the most unlikely of places and in the most difficult of circumstances, defeating capricious circumstance – it cannot be easily squelched.
So much for the difference between dandyism and aestheticism; is there a relationship? Absolutely. And Wilde is, once again the man who was its most elegant embodiment. Put succinctly, one doesn’t have to be a dandy in order to be an aesthete and vice-versa. But aestheticism seems to be the perfect philosophy for someone afflicted with dandyism, and dandyism, considered as an innate compulsion, seems to be a natural encourager of aestheticism.
Wilde wasn’t the only dandy-aesthete. The Twentieth Century’s greatest champion of Aestheticism was also an accomplished dandy, particularly when he was young. Harold Acton opens his famous Memoirs of an Aesthete with a defiant proclamation:
“Half of my friends disapprove of the title I have chosen for this book without having read it. ‘What! an aesthete? One of those scruffy long-haired fellows in peculiar garb, lisping about art for art’s sake? No, no. You’ll prejudice all your readers in advance. Old Oscar screwed the last nail in the aesthete’s coffin’…
Though I shiver and cough I refuse to be a pessimist. We had a culture which war has interrupted, and it was nourished by a few people like myself, citizens of the world. During the war we were forced into hibernation. Many of us are hibernating still.
We citizens of the world are neither famous nor spectacular. But there is a slow fire burning within us, and it is time for our latent energies to swell forth anew. It is time for us to reassert ourselves. And it is our duty to remind our fellow creatures of what they are fast forgetting, that true culture is universal…
Without apologies then, and without being a laudatory temporis Actoni, let me glory in the name of aesthete, for I am one in the proper sense of that word. Let me fling it in the teeth of the Philistines!”
I'll leave you with Acton's impression, when he first came to Oxford and encountered what passed for aestheticism there, a vision not unfamiliar to anyone who’s met a steampunky gothic Morrissey fan clutching a copy of Dorian Gray:
“Lunching with Billy Clonmore, I met what he described as ‘an aesthete’ and was disconcerted. A pressed fern from the pages of the Yellow Book, his disjointed fragments of drawled conversation were as dull as his jaundiced eyes. Had he taken an active interest in the ‘nineties, I might have excused his jaded mannerism. But what interest he could muster in life was limited to his sickly appearance. Sensing my indifference, if not my antipathy, he showed me, in an offhand conceited way, some etchings he had picked up in Vienna. They were timidly prurient, meretriciously art-and-crafty. My gorge rose, my indignation whetted by the creature’s pretension to taste, and I was goaded to crude rudeness. ‘Your etchings are the messes of a miserable masturbator,’ I told him.
There was already sufficient prejudice against art in England, and I feared that this type – for he was a type – was damaging a cause I cherished. He was sterile to the core. His long hair and his ebony cane only stressed his lack of personality. If others could not bear the sight of him – which was evident as we were walking down the Broad – neither could I. Better the moustache stained with nicotine! Billy said he wasn’t such a bad soul. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much,’ I expostulated, ‘if he were a bad soul, if he had anything to positive as a vice.’ I left Billy’s luncheon bursting with resolutions. I made up my mind that if that eunuch represented Oxford aestheticism something would have to be done about it soon. Now that the war was over, those who loved beauty had a mission, many missions. We should combat ugliness; we should create clarity where there was confusion; we should overcome mass indifference; and we should exterminate false prophets.”