It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.
– Great words from a great man.
Holding back from writing a blog comprised entirely of Oscar Wilde quotations (very tempting), I’m going to sidestep towards an upcoming show to raise a few questions. The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900 at the V & A is going to delve into an unexpectedly unconventional ethos. Art For Art’s Sake? Or Art For Beauty’s Sake? The latter, I feel, would be the case in point here. Under the figureheads of such artists and creatives as Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Morris and, of course, poster boy Oscar Wilde, beauty became fashionable in the high Victorian period. Sounds obvious, and not exactly newsworthy, but the late 19th Century really was a high point for vice over virtue. It would be wrong to say that opulence was a completely new thing – just look at the Elizabethan or Medieval periods for proof – but it was used for a different purpose, that is, no purpose. Before the Victorians, decadence was often a glorification of the religious and spiritual, in iconography, ceremonies or lavish cathedrals. Decadence in the high Victorian era – not only in fashion and jewellery but also architecture and interiors – overshadowed the grim reality of life just simply because. As the V& A exhibition will showcase, there was no place in the Aesthetic Movement for any lowly chimney sweep or maid. This was a time for the house proud to let rip, and indulge in the fanciest designs in town. Before our times of rebellion and idiosyncrasy – our Raindance Film Festivals, Edinburgh Festival Fringes, Anti Design Festivals…. – let us not forget that there was a time when perfection was everything.
But let the porcelain skin and rosebud lips not fool you – there’s a big HOWEVER here. Two words: Dorian Gray. It’s often noted that the death of Oscar Wilde was the death of the Aesthetic Movement. True, to a certain extent. But surely anyone who reads Wilde will know his distrust of surface beauty? Quotations from his novels, short stories, essays and articles are everywhere, and we all love them:
“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”
“All art is quite useless.”
“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”
“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”
“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
….and yes, I could go on. The point is, when we read them, we have a little chuckle to ourselves. Because they’re ironic comments on society’s ridiculousness. You’re not supposed to take them at face value. Oscar Wilde’s tragedy was his obsession with a decadence which he very well knew was full of vice. He wrote about it again and again.
Let me tell you, in brief, the story of The Young King:
Once upon a time, there was a Young King. A veritable Adonis in appearance, nothing pleased him more than to simply gaze – at his own appearance in the looking glass, his coronation robe of tissued gold, his ruby-encrusted crown, his rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty….and then back again to his reflection, the polished mirror held up by a laughing Narcissus made of green bronze. One night, following his coronation, the Young King had a dream. He came, in his dream, upon three scenes: a pearl diver, killed by exhaustion as he returns on the ship with the pearl for his own sceptre; gaunt weavers with sunken cheeks, at the looms in a darkened room, working on his own golden robe; hoards of men searching for rubies for his own crown, while Death and Avarice watch over. When the Young King awoke, and his servants prepare to put his robe on his back, he refused, remembering his dream. And the courtiers were amazed, and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was jesting. “There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl,” he said…..this is Wilde’s own commentary, his thoughts despite his contrary lifestyle choices.
And then, of course, there’s Dorian Gray, who sold his soul, and every bit of good in him, for everlasting youth and beauty. We know what happened next.
So it’s interesting to think of beauty in art. Oscar Wilde, in the height of the Aesthetic Movement, expressed (often ruefully) how “All art is quite useless,” because all art, in their eyes, should be beautiful and only beautiful. Nowadays, we’re supposed to engage in art beyond its surface impression – look into the concept behind, experience the process, question it and let it make us question ourselves. Beauty is pretty much bottom in the pecking order in the list of priorities. Strangely, anything ‘beautiful’ now is labelled craft, and often thought lesser because of it. Now, we prefer ugly. One example: the 2009 Turner Prize winner, a gorgeous gilt decorative wall by Richard Wright, intricately patterned in traditional and decadent style. People were mildly surprised – and why? Because it was so beautiful they couldn’t imagine it could possibly have sufficient conceptual depth to be a Turner Prize winner. In-keeping with the Wildean ethos, beautiful and good became, for a moment, mutually exclusive – they (the Victorian Aesthetes) chose the beauty (“It is better to be beautiful than to be good….”)….I guess we like to think we choose the good. And to prove this point further, we also like to value ugliness.
This October, for example, The Future Can Wait, an edgy alternative to Frieze, will be taking place in the eerie basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, in trendy East London. Its disturbing works, from performance and video to site specific installation and painting, all share a definitively un-pretty aesthetic. The grotesque and the sinister, dispelling the glossy allure of the traditional art fair, all come to the forefront in this year’s line-up of 30 artists, including The Future Can Wait stalwarts Tessa Farmer, Sam and Luke Jackson, Gavin Nolan and John Stark, as well as newcomers Dale Adcock, James Howard, Jasper Joffe, Nika Neelova and Wendy Mayer. Check it out for a taste of something different this Autumn.
Over in Piccadilly, the ominous and eerie will again reign supreme in Maurizio Anzeri’s exhibition The Garden Party, which will be set in Q, a new gallery space converted from an old-fashioned bookshop, dusty shelves in tact. Maurizio’s sculptures, made of synthetic hair, are menacing yet weirdly alluring, creating the kind of garden party to have the Victorian Aesthetes up in arms.
If the creatives of the late 19th Century were the Cult of Beauty, what does that make us now? The Cult of Ugly? Does that make us more ethical human beings? I fear not. Though an unshakable fan of Oscar Wilde and all his writings (well, most), there is one thing I have to disagree with him on: beauty and morality are not mutually exclusive. Neither are ugliness and sin. Nor are sin and morality, even. I’m afraid you just have to look past the surface, and, sometimes, step out of your comfort zone. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge an artwork by its exterior. Even if it’s an ugly one.
Lady Lileth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Picture of Dorian Gray
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (c) Stark
(c) Maurizio Anzeri