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Wilde allied himself with the tendency in the arts known as aestheticism. The aesthetes rejected what they saw as the moralism and utilitarianism of their day. They believed that art should not worry about being good or useful. Art should be beautiful. The frequently used phrase was “art for art's sake.”
Aestheticism often verged on the scandalous, and the aesthetes were frequently referred to as decadents. In France, Théophile Gautier urged l'art pour l'art in the preface to his libertine novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin. In England Walter Pater, James McNeill Whistler and Algernon Charles Swinburne disturbed Victorian sensibilities with seemingly sensual ideas in prose, painting and verse.
Wilde made it part of his aesthetic programme that books should be beautiful objects as much as readable texts. He tended toward slender, elegant volumes, instead of the long, densely-printed works of many of his contemporaries.
He and his associates were teased for offering “the tiniest rivulet of text meandering through the very largest meadow of margin.” But Wilde relished the idea of style over substance. He worked closely with others to pioneer fine publishing: artists, Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, and publishers Elkin Mathews and John Lane.
Inevitably the beautiful paper, illustrations, and bindings of aesthetic publishing meant that the books could only be afforded by a small, wealthy section of society. The de luxe edition of Wilde's poem, The Sphinx (1894) was priced at five guineas. This was double what a labourer would earn in a month.
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