The Meaning of a Cult

Franz von Stuck: The Kiss of the Sphinx, 1894. Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Franz von Stuck: The Kiss of the Sphinx, 1894. Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.

The twenty-third chapter of Joseph Pearce’s biography of perhaps the greatest playwright who still casts his brilliant shadow from the gloomy depths of the XIX century, Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, opens with a concise description of the shriekingly gloating reception with which the press of Victorian days celebrated the author’s downfall in the final weeks of May, 1895. The News of the World gleefully announced the swan song of aestheticism: “The aesthetic cult, in the nasty form, is over”. The sentence left unanswered the question of the possibility of the existence of a decent, law-abiding, or, at the very least, just naughty likeness of the cult. The crushing of Oscar Wilde did not merely amount to the loss of a literary genius’ will to resume production once the wrath of society had been sated, but also the plunge into lethargy (maybe, to some extent,  even to this day) of the artist as the creator of a meaningful, universal, masterfully crafted work of art and their being replaced by less-than-passable displayers of ideology, relativism and tantrums.  To the detractors of aestheticism, the despicable term is to be confused with  decadence, even the irrational, even the overtly grotesque.

An almost ludicrous finger pointed against aestheticism is that it leaves the masses, that sacred entity so carefully courted by populists, locked out of the inner sanctum the true aesthete dwells in, and rejoices in the vacuity of a jargon and a philosophy only affordable to those initiated and their acolytes. Thus, it pays little homage to the fact that, in the acrid view of the aesthete-hater, the most essential, soul-searching aspects of art are always folkish and uncomplicated, and should demand just the candor of a safe and sane mind to be reasonably -and for the sake of spiritual cleansing, also untarnishedly- enjoyed. The obvious result of this recipe suitable for politicians on a presidential ticket is that the masses, so cherished by paternalistic regimes, have almost invariably been put on a diet whose main components have been corniness, prudishness, boredom and plain rubbish.  Mandarin elitism, a typical label strapped on aestheticism, found an unexpected supporter both in the apocalyptic fantasies of members of the John Birch Society as well as in left leaning would-be scholars who maintain Shakespeare was an anti-Semitic bigot who basked in the telling of Shylock’s misfortunes.

No bigger favor has ever been so lavishly granted by anyone else than Harold Bloom in his defense of the aesthetic qualities an artist and their work should seek as desirable, even wildly basic, to have his or her oeuvre hailed as something that stands out above the mediocrity of chance. However, I humbly beg to differ with him as refers to the diminished place he assigns to politics in the land of an artist’s priorities. I tend to believe few topics are too tiny or contemptible to be disregarded as bothersome mirages, if (and only if) one’s talent is huge enough to mingle them all and come up with a treat that resembles original beauty.  While the readings a poem may be subjected to can be unlimited, its share of merit, by aesthetic standards, although restrained by the burdens of human imperfection, is to remain its greatest asset, for even the most far-fetched of interpretations will bestow no added value upon artistic illiteracy. The wittiest and wisest contemporary critic, admirer or simpleton eagerly or painstakingly consuming A Woman of No Importance or The Tragedy of King Richard III in their respective eras was unable to predict how the public of nowadays would greet the best of either Wilde or Shakespeare.

As mentioned by historian Arthur Herman in his The Idea of Decline in Western History, the murderous rivalry between corruption and correctness, vice and virtue, decay and healthiness has been embodied, since the years of birth of romantic nationalism, in the split between Zivilisation and Kultur, between sophistication and simplicity, between sheer beauty striving to become meaningful form and plain form struggling to appeal as didactic beauty. To all intents and purposes, these meager lines wholeheartedly gamble on the blemished, decadent, corrupted and ill-reputed conception of that which we call beautiful.

H.B.

 

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