‘Useless Art’ or ‘Practical Protest’: The Fin-de-Siècle Artist between Social Engagement and Artistic Detachment
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This thesis follows recent scholarly interest in the British fin de siècle, focussing on the artist and the notion of art within the context of capitalisation and rapidly changing social strata. It claims that the artist can be understood as a socially orientated rather than purely economically motivated player, who tries to position himself and his art within a distinctly transformed cultural landscape. It demonstrates how many texts and art works of the fin de siècle are permeated by a socio-critical and didactical discourse, which serves to legitimize the artist and his art work on the one hand, and aims at the aesthetic education of his audience on the other. This approach allows for a reconciliation of the paradoxical co-existence of socio-critical engagement and the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ in fin-de-siècle art works. Chapter One, “Leaving the Ivory Tower,” provides a temporal framework for the discussion of the fin de siècle by tracing the development of the eighteenth-century, idealized notion of the artist through the writings of John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. It also gestures towards the connection of this tradition to Theodore Adorno’s understanding of ‘social art’. Examining Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” within the context of this temporal trajectory, this chapter aims to establish an understanding of the paradoxical demands that face the artist in the light of capitalisation and the development of a mass readership at the end of the nineteenth century. Chapter Two, “Social Aestheticism,” investigates Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism” and several of his fairy tales and George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man in view of their affiliation with Aestheticism. These texts, while insisting on the autonomy of art and voicing their opinions in the disdainful tone of the disinterested artist, are striking because of the social awareness and criticism that they express. By showing how these opposing concepts aim for the legitimization of the artist, this chapter draws attention to the aesthetic-didactical element of Aestheticism, positioning its artists as social critics and educators rather than otherworldly figures. Chapter Three, “A Map of Utopia,” considers William Morris’ News from Nowhere as an example of the artist as visionary and the importance of artistic imagination in the process of social evolution and change. It argues that Morris’ utopia can be read as supporting the concept of autonomous art in that it expresses the omnipresence of art and the realization of a perfect society that this entails. As such, the text demonstrates the social effectiveness of autonomous art which, in turn, supports an understanding of the artist as social agent. Chapter Four, “Periodical Education,” looks at The Yellow Book as an example of audience education and the positioning of the artist through the medium of art. It contrasts The Yellow Book’s aspiration to be an ‘art for art’s sake’ publication with its socio-critical content, evidencing how the concept of autonomous art is used at the fin de siècle for the selection and education of an audience. Chapter Five, “The Author at a Distance,” examines Max Beerbohm’s essays in the light of their aesthetic-didactical tone and the artist-audience relationship they establish. By including a selection of Beerbohm’s later essays, this chapter also gestures towards the difference between the artist-audience relationship implied in fin-de-siècle art as opposed to Modernist art. This attests to the distinct character of fin-de-siècle art. Further, the chapter investigates the effects of these aspects in terms of artist legitimization and the promotion of autonomous art, and thus shows how Beerbohm’s essays contribute to an understanding of fin-de-siècle art as didactical, aesthetic and autonomous at the same time. In conclusion, this thesis reveals how artists at the fin de siècle used their art in order to legitimize an idealized position of the artist within society, to promote the separation between art and life and to create an audience that would appreciate and understand this view. It thus also demonstrates how the paradox between the concept of autonomous art and artistic socio-critical engagement can be reconciled.