Aestheticism as An Affirmation of Alexandrianism

Posted: February 19, 2019 in Uncategorized

(as always, check the images for links)

Wilde Sontag

Both essays we read by Susan Sontag show her great admiration for Oscar Wilde, with whose aphorisms we began the semester. This famous master of refined wit, in his essay/dialogue “The Critic as Artist,” makes the bland declaration that Alexandria is greater than Athens. Outrageous! Wilde’s quip, without a doubt, would have scandalized all the scholars and historians who, as I stated in class, believed that the Greece of Aeschylus and Polykleitos exemplified Humanity, per se; the race in its most beautiful, dignified and purist essence. As a consequence of this belief, these scholars saw all subsequent cultural expressions, such as those of Rome or Alexandria, as mere copies fallen away from the Greek canon of excellence (ἀρετή). Since we have been taught in school to accept the assumption of these traditionalist classicists, Wilde’s statement should sound at least very odd to us. But might it make a certain amount of sense? What is Wilde trying to say, really? Well, to begin, not only should we be aware that Wilde’s statement resembles certain ideas of one of his contemporaries, the philologist-turned-philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. We should also be aware that Wilde is in his quip attacking one of his former mentors, the most eminent Victorian expert on Beauty, John Ruskin.


Ruskin’s classic statement, “The Savageness of The Gothic”, from The Stones of Venice, declares that medieval art is superior to modern art insofar its rough-hewn character offers evidence of an active and creative culture in which productivity, on all levels of society, was considered more important than perfection of finish. Ruskin, in a spirit of socialism, declares that any time we see gratuitous polish we must recognize it as a clear indication of oppression, a society in which master architects intellectually plan, as workman of various sorts and degrees of skill meanwhile slave to polish statues and make glass beads.


It is this sort of hyper-refinement – refinement for its own sake, luxurious sheen produced by laborers without any opportunity to plan or create – which Ruskin sees in evidence throughout the Victorian homes our own society has come to find so quaint. This opulence Ruskin indicts as philistinism and barbarism, something wholly opposed to noble savageness. Beauty, Ruskin argues, must always be linked to Morality, a doctrine embraced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters whom Ruskin was the first critic to champion.


Wilde, ironist that he is, agrees whole-heartedly with Ruskin. Indeed, Beauty must always be linked to Morality. And for this reason Wilde, though certainly no believer, is nevertheless a great lover of religion. Wilde, like Nietzsche, is a transvaluer of all values. Thus, he inverts the equation of Beauty and Morality, insisting not that Beauty must serve Morality but rather that Morality must serve Beauty. In a word, Beauty must make a servant of Morality and force it into labor. Morality, the slave (δούλη), must work to make its Beauty, the master (κύριος), all the more beautiful (καλός). Consequently, in direct opposition to Ruskin, nothing will be declared great art which does not conspicuously, indeed wantonly, manifest unoriginal, incidental and superfluous labor. Nothing will be considered beautifully which is not to one extent or another consciously and wastefully over-wrought.


In radical opposition then to the popular myth of Rodin as quasi-divine creator, Wilde, argues that art is not the result of a raw titanic will-to-originality but rather the result of the superficial polishing, or interpolation, of what others have roughly wrought. If for Ruskin the sculptor is the genuine artist and the polisher a mere slave, for Wilde it is just the opposite: the sculptor is a mere slave while the true master is the one who polishes. Or, to put it into explicitly literary terms, generating original compositions is, for Wilde, the work of talentless hacks; whereas the refined occupation of copying, editing and making superficial revisions is the exclusive prerogative of the genuine artist.

Athens vs Alexandria

Which is exactly the point of Alexandrianism, both historically and as decribed by the influential modern art critic Clement Greenberg – whom one almost shudders to mention in such close association with Wilde. (It was in fact Greenberg’s very famous article “The Plight of Culture” which occasions the response we will read by Leo Steinberg.) According to Greenberg, Alexandrianism, which he fiercely attacks in his early essay “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” is that cultural domain which invents nothing new but restricts itself exclusively and self-consciously to refining and polishing, collecting and compiling, editing and annotating, its own past – and doing so until all signs of original manufacture or regional provenance are eliminated. These are precisely the textual operations which, as modern philologist Daniel Heller-Roazen points out, were performed by man who considered themselves to be not only scholars but also active poets. Alexandrianism, as I tried to suggest in class, endeavors consciously and systematically to render all art and artifacts cosmopolitan, cosmetic (κόσμος). Once this work of interpolation is completed, literary and artistic objects in both libraries and museums, as well as objects produced by the present culture, will appear not to have any past at all, to be free of all patrilineage. Culture in general, along with individual human nature, appear, then, always to have existed just as they are now. Or, culture and the individual appear both to be spontaneous self-creations. One engenders oneself, Wilde suggests, precisely by erasing one’s parents, or at least by erasing one’s father. Which as Freud teaches us, has always been the fantasy of the modern fetishist (he who still believes in magic): to return to a time before the self was separated from the mother.


Could such a story possibly be true? For Wilde, as for Nietzsche, the actual reality and moral value of such a story are a matter of utter indifference. In accordance with my suggestion truth and morality must be put firmly into the service of a higher ideal, the value of such a story must be judged solely in terms of its power to dazzle.

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