Wilde’s Critical and Social Authority in “The House Beautiful”

The Oscar Wilde who wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to have little in common with the Oscar Wilde of the advice-column-esque lecture, “The House Beautiful.” In fact, it is obvious from the first page that Wilde departs from his novelistic voice:

“In asking you to build and decorate your houses more beautifully, I do not ask you to spend large sums, as art does not depend in the slightest degree upon extravagance or luxury.” – p. 913

His use of the first-person “I,” the incorporation of an imperative voice, and the inclusion of a second-person addressee all cast this essay as a very different kind of literary work than one we’re used to seeing from Oscar Wilde. Rather than veiling himself under the characters of his work, he assumes here a role of a didactic authority on decoration.

This assumed authority over decoration begins in the domestic sphere. Meticulously, he moves through each room of the house giving detailed commands:

“As regards style of furniture: avoid the ‘early English’ or Gothic furniture; the Gothic, now so much thought of in this country, [. . .] is really so heavy and massive that it is out of place. [. . .] I advise you to have Queen Anne furniture.” – p. 918-919

This is not a mere appraisal of individual objects, but an evaluation of style. It is the Gothic style of furniture that he condemns, not an individual Gothic chair that he finds displeasing. Similarly, he advocates for a certain kind and era of furniture – the Queen Anne furniture. This places Wilde apart from those who arbitrarily like or dislike a piece of furniture, for his opinions are coming from a theory of interior decoration. He has aesthetic reasons for the judgments he parses out. Thus, Wilde assumes the mantle of an art critic in the essay.

This role of the art critic allows Wilde to place himself in a position of authority over the proper arrangement of a home’s interior. Later in the essay, however, he uses this same position of authority to dictate on the way society should be arranged – in particular, the way it should be arranged around matters of art. Take, for instance, his view on education:

“The refining influence of art, begun in childhood, will be of the highest value to all of us in teaching our children to love what is beautiful and good, and hate what is evil and ugly.” – p. 925

This call for a certain kind of education for children is an extension of his authority outside of the domestic sphere and into the social. He uses the first person plural, “all of us,” instead of just “you,” to signal this change. In appealing to the public, social good, rather than just the domestic one, Wilde becomes more than a traditional art critic. Rather, his recommendations to society on how to organize itself point to some utopian impulse in which Wilde acts as an artistic world-builder. Indeed, he targets children, the most impressionable population, as the place to sow his aesthetic theory and build his ideal society around art.

Hence, it is not only that Wilde aims to judge society and its art; he aims to actually impart his value system onto others and craft his vision. Outlining his aesthetic theory through an essay-lecture such as “The House Beautiful,” then, can be seen as part of this project. It acts as an instance of education for others on how best to handle, judge, and create art. Hence, it is a piece not only of critique, but a work of (social) artistic creation as well.

Wilde, then, as the crafter of an artistic utopia through “The House Beautiful” displays an unusual level of authority, not only in comparison to Wilde’s own novelistic voice, but in comparison to that of the traditional art critic as well. It is not enough for him to condemn something as ugly or praise something as beautiful: he will show us how we can be sure of exercising good social taste for art in every case. In acting not only as a critic, but as a social architect, then, Wilde approaches aesthetics in a more holistic – and authoritative – way.

-[A.A.]

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Filed under Week 8 reviews: Wilde's journalism, Wilde's Salome

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