The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie

The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie

The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie

The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie


By printing the title "Professor of Aesthetics" on his visiting cards, Oscar Wilde announced yet another transformation-and perhaps the most significant of his career, proclaiming his belief that he could redesign not just his image but his very self. Shelton Waldrep explores the cultural influences at play in Wilde's life and work and his influence on the writing and performance of the twentieth century, particularly on the lives and careers of some of its most aestheticized performers: Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and David Bowie. As Waldrep reveals, Wilde's fusing of art with commerce foresaw the coming century's cultural producers who would blend works of both "high art" and mass-market appeal.

Whether as a gay man or as a postmodern performance artist ahead of his time, Wilde ultimately emerges here as the embodiment of the twentieth-century media-savvy artist who is both subject and object of the aesthetic and economic systems in which he is enmeshed.

Shelton Waldrep is associate professor of English at the University of Southern Maine. He is the coauthor of Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World (1995) and editor of The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture (2000).


In a sense, a study of Oscar Wilde begins with the invention of Wilde as we know him; namely, the self-designated “professor of aesthetics,” as he identified himself on his visiting cards when he came down from Oxford to London in 1879. It is at this time that Wilde embarked on his first great period in which he not only reinvented himself yet again but also had to earn money and make his way in the commercial world. Wilde's transformation at this point in his life was certainly not his first—nor his last—but marks the most significant in his career, as Wilde made clear that he saw his identity as something mutable. For anyone who was interested, he was making the claim that he could—he had— redesigned not just his image but himself. Wilde's subsequent trajec tory was not toward some ultimate being—some essential or irreducible self—but the beginning in earnest of a system of becoming, of transfor mations of self that left any belief that there could be a natural, stable Oscar Wilde in doubt.

Wilde's legacy as both a writer and a literary figure of social, political, and cultural significance is such that Wilde the man cannot be readily separated from Wilde the careerist. His roles as aesthete, lec turer, businessman, family man, poet, editor, playwright, seducer, pris oner, and exile are part of a broader role of writer as performer that he used self-consciously in an attempt to destroy the binary opposition separating art and life. Beginning at least as early as his career at Oxford . . .

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