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Art and Society

A review of The Aesthetic Adventure, by William Gaunt.

This book is founded on the theory that the growth of Bohemianism and Art-for-Art’s-Sake in post-Napoleonic France was a defensive reaction against the bourgeoisie which had no place for art in its scheme. The defense against rejection explains the hostility, the snobbery, the desperate craving for sensation of the esthetes; and William Gaunt comes even to speak of “the comparative happiness of irresponsibility” (a word we have recently heard from other knaves and fools). He then proceeds to his main story of the invasion of this attitude into England; he regards the “esthetic adventure” as the narrow lineage, always fecundated from France, of Whistler, Pater, Wilde, Moore, Beardsley, Symons, ending up, surprisingly, with Roger Fry’s abstractionism. It is now, says he, all over, and “there was in total result a grain of beauty, impossible to weigh against the insignificant expenditure of lives.”

All this is told with considerable ignorance, total eclipse of perspective and philosophy, and an irritating presumptuousness. The book breathes a kind of liberal tolerance combined with acceptance of the point of view of “society” that would be laudable if in fact there were such a unified society with a moral point of view, rather than the confusion torn by strong moral-revolutionary currents that actually exists. In this confusion, the “esthetic adventure” is by no means dead, and further, we see it allied, just as it was from the very beginning and throughout its course, with all other forces of economic and social criticism and political disgust. There never was any such isolated movement as this book abstracts for its subject. It is simply fantastic to write of Art-for-Art’s-Sake without discussing also Fabianism, feminism, the critique of the factory system and of the debasement of communication in journalism and advertising. Relying on the conflict that arose from Whistler’s crotchets and Ruskin’s senility, Gaunt tries, for instance, to create a gulf between the esthetes on one hand and Ruskin and Morris on the other; yet these are parts of one revolt, often with identical propositions, against money-values, Victorian immorality and unnatural living. The difference is not that the bohemians had less social concern, but that they tried to practice with a millennarian immediacy what Morris still wrote of as Utopian.

Let us return to the original theory of the defense against rejection. Does Gaunt think that a dominant class could be fundamentally sound which “had no place” for these artists in its scheme of society? But what if the bohemians revolted, in life and theory, precisely against the dominant errors and affirmed opposite truths? Then we should have to explain them at least in part, should we not, in terms of truth and nature; their isolation, jokes and snobbery were partly the behavior of sane, lively people in a depressing madhouse; and their comparative happiness was not altogether the result of irresponsibility, but partly the result of courage, honesty and independence. Rather than a reaction, the esthetes were heirs of the Revolution and the military aristocracy of the First Empire. In short, the one question that this author never asks himself is, “Were the ideas true? Were the paintings achieved?” May I remind him of the great principle of Hughlings Jackson, that one cannot explain a positive effect by a negative cause? For the most part he mentions no works at all, as if one could describe the lives of persons and omit the activity that most deeply engaged them and contained all of their influence.

As an example of the author’s critical acumen, here is what he has to say of Wilde’s paradoxes:

If the proverbial wisdom and accepted maxims were natural, then to convert wisdom into art it was only necessary to turn it upside down. . . . “If one tells the truth one is sure sooner or later to be found out.” “One should be careful to choose one’s enemies well.” “Nothing succeeds like excess.” . . . However simple the recipe . . . as truth is many-sided, it sometimes looked as if in reversing the accepted he had made an important discovery.

But the fact is that Wilde’s sententiae are not paradoxes at all, but bald statements of what is the case in a repressed, false and conventional society. Thus the first sentence quoted refers to the pitiful fact that most people are simply unable to believe that a man is serious and means what he says; the second means that where people are not motivated by love, at least their hatred is reliable; the third says that where the standards of the mean are conventional, the extreme still has natural force. One would not gather from the author’s description of these recipes that Wilde’s Intentions is an acute, earnest and dialectically brilliant refutation of the position of Matthew Arnold, setting against Arnold’s ideal of the synoptic, unifying truth the brutal fact that in a time when the actual social unity consists of greed and timidity, the true man is known by the flexibility with which he assumes masks.