The Dark Side of Aestheticism

The Dark Side of Aestheticism.

The long 18th century and the 19th century were periods of experiment, with a rapidly changing landscape brought about by the industrial revolution. Age old doctrines were now in question as science and innovation proved useful to the general population. Most literary theories are a response to these on-going changes. The main division was between theories that support reason and rationality with those that push to promote imagination and expressivity. Aestheticism began as a criticism of Realism which purposed to show the world as it was, that in the real sense. Aestheticism preached the opposite, seeking to look for beauty in art not real life. This theory proposed art should have no moral or social and political agenda and should rather, be about showcasing beauty (Stevens). The problem with this theory’s disregard for morals is that it allows for a darker element to arise. In this essay, I will focus on The Picture of Dorian Gray and will argue that Dorian, by embracing an aesthetic lifestyle, creates a dark double in form of the picture. To analyze the dark double and its effect on Dorian, I will look at some psychoanalytic theories by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung whose articles shed some light into how to analyze the text.

Aestheticism and what it should entail has been a topic of debate even among the pioneers of this theory. There are different facets to this theory depending on which writer you follow. Arnold states that the object of criticism should be to see the text [or art] for what it really is that is, and that we should look at literary texts objectively. Pater preaches the opposite; for him, art should always be looked at subjectively (Matz 53). That is, for each individual, a piece of art might resonate differently given that each person is different. Pater claims that it is the feeling and impression the art gives the viewer that is important. Clearly, there is a difference in the way different proponents of the aesthetic position view this theory, which might lead to the belief that Aestheticism contradicts itself, and while it seems this way, keep in mind that this was a theory that was constantly growing and revised by different writers and thinkers of the eras. Despite the conflicting opinions as to what Aestheticism should entail, it is generally agreed that Aestheticism seeks to promote art for the sake of art. The purpose of art is not to serve any “particular social or political agenda” (Stevens 131) but to create beauty. Arnold refers to this as sweetness (Arnold). As mentioned earlier, the theory of aestheticism is largely a response to realism which set to portray life as is. Realism strived to tell stories based on political and social issues. Writers like Charles Dickens talk about the condition of children working in the factories, and how they had no place there. Books and works of art such as this showed the ugly reality of the society existing at that time. Furthermore, novels with morals were quite popular at this time and reinforced the traditional conventions. All this, aestheticism denounces, criticizing the emphasis on real life and morality. The Aesthetes thought art should have no meaning and in the words of Wilde, that “all art is quite useless” (Wilde 4). That art should exist only for the purpose of creating beauty, that is, for the sake of itself. Art had no reason to look to the real world or try to emulate the real world as the world was ugly and deformed and could never produce anything beautiful.

The aesthetic idea that art should have no moral or should not preach or reinforce traditional values is what makes the aesthetic similar to the gothic. In The Renaissance, Pater comments on the painting of the Mona Lisa which he claims has a kind of eternal beauty (Pater 88). Mona Lisa has outlasted everyone and it is in art that we can find such a feat. For Pater, art holds a supernatural power that we would associate with the gothic yet aestheticism allows for this kind of unconventionality if it means beautiful art is being produced. As Riquelme states, “The merger is possible, and inevitable, because of the tendency of Gothic writing to present a fantastic world of indulgence and boundary-crossing and the tendency of the aesthetic, in Pater, to press beyond conventional boundaries and to recognize terror within beauty” (Riquelme 491). Art can be whatever as far as it produces beauty. Due to the broadness of this theory, the gothic and the decadent have a place here. In Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess”, the painting of the duchess makes her look “as if she were alive” (Browning 2). That is, even in death, a person can still live on in art. We see the same when Dorian sees his portrait for the first time, he says “… this painting will remain always young” (Wilde 25). Art is magnificent and powerful in its ability to preserve memory among other things, and it is one of the things that makes art special. The Picture of Dorian Gray is another good example of the aesthetic gothic. Everything sinful and unconventional seems to happen in the dark or at night time. This gives the novel a gothic element to it. Furthermore, while Dorian’s youthful and beautiful face represents the aesthetic, the picture of Dorian, which changes with each sin he commits, is dark and bothersome. This shows a supernatural aspect to it that we can only call gothic.

The theory of Aestheticism and its disregard for morality fosters a problem, one which The Picture of Dorian Gray explores. Are there consequences for living without any guiding principles? For Dorian to live a decadent lifestyle to the fullest, what has to happen? When Dorian first sees the portrait, he wishes to remain young and aesthetical beautiful and proclaims “I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” (Wilde 25). Dorian proclamation that he would give his very soul is symbolic not only because it signifies the importance of beauty to Dorian but also because it shows the creation of the other Dorian, one existing by the constraints of the real world. This is what the dark other represents; a persona that does not follow the rules of aestheticism. Dorian transfers himself unto the portrait, a portrait which has to show Dorian for what he really is, and not just what he seems to be. Riquelme explains that Wilde’s text “… provides in narrative form a dark double for Pater’s aestheticism that emerges from a potential for dark doubling and reversal within aestheticism itself” (Riquelme 491). Riquelme gets to the root of the problem by noticing the consequences of a theory like aestheticism. Aestheticism makes no mention of the consequences of living an excessive, decadent lifestyle. Yet there are effects to whatever action we take. This, for Dorian comes in form of his portrait. The portrait is like a canvas staining with every sin Dorian commits.

To explore this idea of the dark double, Freud’s The Uncanny gives an interesting explanation for the dark other. We first see the change in the portrait after the suicide of Sybil Vane; the text explaining that “… the expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange” (Wilde 77). The novel enters into the realm of the gothic with this scene. The phrase used to describe the change, “one would have said…” suggests an uncertainty in what was seen, and causes one to question why the narrator does not simply say, “there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth”.  Furthermore, the use of the word “strange” synonymous to “uncanny” establishes that there is something mysterious, something not quite right, and maybe even a little unsettling. In The Uncanny, Freud explores the meaning behind the uncanny and gives the example of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, where the protagonist is plagued by the idea of a bedtime story about the Sandman. Freud explains that author leaves the reader “… in doubt whether… [they] are witnessing the first delirium of the panic-stricken boy…” (Freud 6).  The same goes for the readers of The Picture of Dorian Gray when Dorian notices the change in the mouth. Freud further explains the idea of the uncanny by quoting Schelling who states that “… everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light” (Freud 4). Carl Jung refers to this as the “shadow archetype” which is “… composed primarily of the elements of ourselves that we consider to be negative” (Waude 3). The portrait becomes a part of him that Dorian that he dislikes hence the name dark double. We see evidence of Dorian’s hatred for the portrait when Dorian returns to check on the portrait a second time.  He refers to it as “… the mask of his shame” (Wilde 80). He is aware of what the portrait has come to represent; something negative and ugly and this is something Dorian cannot stand because he understands what it means. He says, “[w]as there some subtle affinity between the chemical atoms, that shaped themselves into form and colour on the canvas, and the soul that was within [him]?” (Wilde 80-81). Dorian is aware that his lifestyle of aestheticism has consequences and while they cannot manifest on him, they can appear on the portrait.

The idea of the dark double allows for an interesting visualization. One could very well imagine the Dorian in the portrait as the one who goes around doing the same thing that the real Dorian does. A double who has embraced the evil that comes with an idea like Aestheticism but also suffers the real life consequences the real Dorian should like numerous diseases etc. This would essentially make the portrait Dorian the real Dorian Gray. Dorian’s corruption in the text shows the problem a theory like aestheticism poses. Even Lord Henry, who appears to be the consummate aesthete and leads the impressionable Dorian astray does not subscribe completely to the aesthete lifestyle.  He still lives within the constraints of the traditional principles as he is married, and has children even though he opposes the idea. This makes Lord Henry hypocritical but his conformity to some societal values suggests he understands the damaging effect of aestheticism.

Other criticisms make mention of the fact that the theory of Aestheticism contradicts itself. If the role of aestheticism is to promote art with no social or political agenda, aestheticism cannot promote anything. Yet the idea of aestheticism is meant to be a theory for people to live by and that itself is an agenda. To say art should be about beauty and nothing else is informing people of a certain way to view art which is a motive. Another criticism of the aesthetics is its ostentatious nature. With works of aesthete men like William Morris and James McNeill Whistler, aestheticism can only be the way of life of those who are of a certain income. Huysmans text, Against Nature that is taken to be the prime example of aesthetic writing, the main character Des Esseintes is a man of considerable wealth. This theory does not take into account those of lesser fortune and even further, seeks to ignore the plight of the unfortunate. Some things are never able to be depicted as they will never be considered beautiful. Sybil Vane stops being a performer and therefore stops being beautiful to Dorian.  This theory ignores the issues of society and focuses on the importance of beauty above all else. A counter argument can be made by stating that aestheticism acts as an escape from reality. Reality can take a toll on one’s mind, and just admiring art for its beauty is a good way to escape from that reality.

This essay looked at the concept of art for art sake which suggests that art should only exist to create art. And if art is only creating art, it will always create something beautiful because art can never be ugly. There is a supernatural aspect to this idea as aestheticism holds Art as a religion, as a transcendent form incapable of being ordinary or ugly therefore art will always be beautiful if it is created just for the sake of creating art. Since aesthetic art never copies society or reality, aestheticism turns a blind eye to the problems and issues that might arise in society. It seeks only to portray art in its true form, beauty. However, we see, with the case of Dorian and his dark double, there are consequences for living an aesthete decedent life.


Work Cited


Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Cornhill Magazine. 1869. Assessed on Canvas.

Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” 1846. Assessed on Canvas.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” 1919. Assessed on Canvas.

Waude, Adam. “Carl Jung: Archetypes and Analytical Psychology.” PsychologistWorld, Assessed 28 March 2017.

Matz, Jesse. Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics. Cambridge University Press, 2001. Assessed from ProQuest.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 98-99. Assessed on Canvas.

Riquelme, John. “Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Gothic.” The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by Michael Patrick Gillespie, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, 490-508.

Stevens, Anne. Literary Theory and Criticism: An Introduction. Broadview Press. 2015.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company. 2007.



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