- Wilde, Aesthetics, Consumer Culture
Paul L. Fortunato's Modernist Aesthetics and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Oscar Wilde does a good job of outlining the cultural context surrounding Wilde's earlier works and arguing for this influence on his writings. Fortunato begins by discussing Wilde's social circles and consumer culture. During the course of this discussion, he argues for a very mixed social interaction among the wealthy, aristocratic, and interesting individuals (such as Wilde). In other words, he suggests that during this period society was far less defined solely by class than it had been at other times. The Souls, a group that was dominated by the aristocracy, were representative of this new social world, defined themselves less by class than by aesthetic taste, and associated with like-minded individuals from the artist and middle classes. This kind of view resulted in a mixing of high and mass culture in such venues as newspapers and the theater.
Fortunato goes on to discuss the new journalism of the late nineteenth century, focusing particularly on the Pall Mall Gazette, which was more sensational than conventional newspapers, sought broader circulation and moved largely within the world of popular culture. Out of this emphasis on popular culture and new journalism came such publications as Woman's World, which Wilde edited during the latter part of the 1880s. Fortunato argues that Wilde's magazine, like other similar magazines, was influenced by popular culture, particularly in the form of female aestheticism, which blurred the line between traditional topics of aesthetics (literature and the visual arts) and popular emphases on beauty (fashion and personal appearance). Fortunato sees connections [End Page 106] between the ideas of the female aesthetes (some of whom published their ideas in Woman's World) and those of Wilde, particularly those ideas emphasizing the value of appearance and surface. Where others rejected female aesthetic views, Wilde generally embraced them—consequently came Wilde's focus on such ideas as the importance of surface, the desire to shine, and a value of style. Fortunato concludes his discussion of Wilde by considering the foregoing ideas in relationship to the theater world of the time and to Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan in particular. For Fortunato, Lady Windermere's Fan emphasizes consumer fashion and plays to the mass audience rather than rejecting that part of the audience, and he sees the character of Mrs. Erlynne as especially important to the movement of the play, both in the fact that she acts counter to the conventional melodramatic characters that she resembles in the theater of the time and in the fact that her emphasis remains throughout on the importance of surface and the value of consumer fashion.
Fortunato makes very useful contributions to the context surrounding Wilde's writings, and he makes a convincing argument that Wilde's views were influenced by the general popular ideas on beauty and particularly those ideas propounded by the female aesthetes. I do have some reservations. For example, this book focuses heavily on Wilde's earlier writings and far less on his work after Lady Windermere's Fan. There seems to be very much a progression in Wilde's work leading from Lady Windermere's Fan to The Importance of Being Earnest, in which he refined his ideas and their implementation. Fortunato seems to minimize the significant changes that occurred in Wilde's career as it progressed. As a result, I felt as if Fortunato's assessments are not as applicable to his later as they are to the earlier works. I also think that at times Fortunato pushed his ideas a little too far in emphasizing the influence of popular culture on Wilde's works. Clearly, Wilde was influenced, but perhaps not quite as much as Fortunato argues. I also wondered about the emphasis on modernism in the book. I think that needed to be far more fully developed than it is here in order to see a connection between Wilde's work and that of modernists such as Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, and so...