Monday, February 22, 2010

Metaphysical Monday: Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Tino Seghal experibit at the Guggenheim that I referenced in last week's post put me in the mood for lighthearted but serious-minded philosophical discussion; and the audience-participation exercise at the beginning of this month was so fascinating and fun, I thought it could be fun to try something like that again. So I'm going to post below one of my favorite manifestos -- Oscar Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray -- choose a line, and comment upon it in the comments; and I hope you too will pick out a line, mull it over a bit, and say whether you agree or disagree with it and why. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, just interesting human responses.

And for the record, when I say this is one of my favorite manifestos, that's because to me it is the perfect match of form and content, completely embodying itself: It is clever, and beautiful (it sounds good, especially when read aloud), and delightful, and conscience-free, because its only interest is in its own cleverness, beauty, and delight. But I am not sure it is right or true, because I don't think Wilde was necessarily interested in right or truth; or, at least, they were lower on his priority list than the clever and the beautiful. . . . And lord, I have already begun my comment! So here's the manifesto. The italics on the last line are Wilde's.


Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde


The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.


  1. Having read the manifesto again, I think I was wrong in saying that "its only interest is in its own cleverness, beauty, and delight." Because I think Wilde is quite serious, actually -- or at least mostly serious: that art is something that is made, like a chair, say; and just as there aren't any moral or immoral chairs ("Chairs are well made, or badly made. That is all."), there is no moral or immoral art . . . just moral or immoral uses to which it can be turned. Then he denies the possibility of moral or immoral uses with "All art is quite useless," a statement with which I disagree profoundly. I usually judge works of art based upon their ability to move me emotionally, and the emotional reactions that art can provoke are HUGELY useful to the artist, propagandist, cover designer, and ad agency, and the people they serve.

    It's interesting, actually, that Wilde doesn't invoke ANY possible emotional reactions to art here other than admiration or anti-admiration -- whether you find something charming or not. Whereas I as a viewer/reader/etc. routinely laugh, or get angry, or gasp, or weep, or come away determined to change the world. . . . Wilde would either think me a fool for lacking his detachment ("Those who read the symbol do so at their peril"), or was so detached himself he couldn't conceive of such reactions. Or perhaps he found art and beauty so powerful that he had to pretend detachment ...

    What do you think?

  2. I think that Oscar Wilde is a devious man in the writing of this. I think he means every word he wrote, yet he wrote it in such a way that people are (ironically) pushed to a passion to disagree with at least some part of it.

    I can almost imagine him defending what he wrote against any protests with the emotional detachment you mention in your comment. Unfortunate, really, that he didn't live when he could have joined a debate team. He would have been a master.

    The line I choose to comment on is: "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming."

    Such a subjective statement. After all, who is to decide what is ugly and what is beautiful? Does that mean that people who don't agree with us are corrupt? Feels like a very self-serving line.

  3. Oscar is either the grouchiest of grouches or he is having a wee bit of fun at his reader's expense. I do think he was serious, and I also think he was seriously having some fun, when he wrote this!

    I am responding to the following line: "No artist desires to prove anything." On this particular point I think Wilde is resoundingly correct. Art that sets out to prove something seems to me to be nothing more than a political or dogmatic statement. The first hint of a heavy handed message sends the particular art to the trash heap of provincialism and the short life of the moment.

    True art is a discovery, not a geometric proof. It is a discovery of some small nugget of truth, of beauty, of horror, of grief. it is the subtlest unwrapping of a tiny portion of life--it may require the epic sweep of a great novel or simply the three lines of a haiku--but art doesn't prove. It celebrates.

  4. All art is quite useless.

    I had already picked out the line I wanted to comment on, but when I reached the end I realized that the final line perfectly encapsulates the meaning of all that comes before it.

    I've always heard the maxim that the more something is needed, the less it can truly be enjoyed and savored. I think that's why so many marriages end in divorce. You shouldn't need another person, but you should want them desperately.

    Art is that way too. It should have no value on it own, apart from the emotional/spiritual connection given to it by those who enjoy it.

    That's why some people look at a Ferrari and ask, "why?"

    To which I respond by saying, "because it's beautiful..."

    Art is truly what separates us from the rest of the creatures on earth. We're the only ones who create things that are completely useless.

  5. All art is quite useless.

    I would take issue with this statement and pose a question. Would you want to live in an artless world?

    Emphatically, I would answer no. And add another question: What does art do for me, for us?

    Art affords a format in which we can respond to inspiration. It provides a platform for sharing our appreciation of the creation around us, for our creator. It releases emotion. Through art, an exchange of understanding and emotion takes place between creator and audience, no matter the art form.

    Could we get along just fine without the sculpture and paintings of Michelangelo? Or without the poetic musings of Emily Dickinson? Would it matter if I had never read Little Women or Wuthering Heights or Roots? Did I really need to see Baryshnikov soar into the heights or experience the rapid-fire taps of Xavion Glover? Was there any value to my hearing The Messiah or the sweet tenor of Pavarotti?

    I suppose I could go through my days just fine without these experiences, but I am so much the richer for them. Just like I could exist on meals of meat and potatoes, but I want the spice and the dessert in life. I want to feed not just my body, but my soul; my spirit. That’s what art does for us—it feeds our souls. It allows us to transcend the ordinary and experience the divine, albeit in brief snatches. I, myself, am very grateful that there are those among us who can create art and bring this enrichment into my ordinary life. For me, art makes all the difference.

  6. "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."

    Perhaps art is useless because it is always seen through the lenses of the person observing it. Conclusions cannot be reached ahead of time by the creator about the way it will make someone feel. Rather only about the way it makes the creator feel.

    For instance, several who-knows-how-many teenagers read Twilight and formed a cultic following, while whole groups of what we might call “literary observers” believe it is poorly written. Does it matter? No. Personal perception is both the power and the downfall of any piece of art.

    I've seen the Mona Lisa and toured the Louvre and I didn't exactly do back flips and yet the Mona Lisa lives in the most expensive square footage in the world (as to protect it from the great dangers of air and light and the occasional destructive curator or rock tosser.)

    On the other hand, I've watched Rent and In the Heights on Broadway and been completely taken with the stories of home and unconditional love. Doesn't that say something about me, the spectator? These are themes that matter to me and the way I view life. But, they might be quite useless to you. You might have your skirt completely flipped over the most popular piece of art on the planet, and that says something about you. Just like all those teenagers and (shhhhh- teenage moms) that read Twilight and remember or longed for those feelings of first and unbelievable love.

    While I have neither the clout nor the portfolio to make amendments to Oscar, I would say this piece would be more beautiful and perfect if he had but added two words to the end: All art is quite useless to someone.

  7. Perfectly random question (sorry, Dorian Gray) -- when's Elizabeth Bunce's Starcrossed coming out? Please say 'tomorrow.'

  8. My comment is a bit of a question:

    "Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming...Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated."

    What if you find beautiful meanings in ugly things? Are you corruptly cultivated?

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  10. Perhaps, and I'm not saying I agree with Oscar Wilde here, "all art is useless" simply means that something ceases to be art once it is put to use. For example, art that is used for propaganda purposes becomes propaganda. Art that is used for therapy becomes a therapeutic tool. This could also work in the reverse, say with something like a car. A car is built to be a car, and when it is used as a car it is simply a car, but when it is displayed at a car show or in a museum or in a private collection it ceases being a car (i.e. a useful object) and becomes art (i.e. a useless object).

  11. I like to have serious-minded philosophical discussions with my friends once in a while, I love to reason and prove them I'm right, but sometimes I'm not ans it's quite a challenge for me, thanks for the nice post!

  12. ...All art is quite useless.

    I'm just finishing up a paper on Wilde's preface. And I've been worried that - despite my professor telling the class that the preface is more sophisticated than how simple it may appear at first - maybe I'm over-reading it a bit, having done a microscoping, line-by-line analysis.

    It seems to me that the preface as a whole can almost be, not sophisticated, but actually convoluted. But I think it's almost Wilde's artistic, mocking mimicry of the art criticism that Wilde is actually criticizing himself. That would be in his character, I believe.

    What I found further ironic is that I was only able to get to that conclusion (which I SWEAR is accurate, despite my crossed eyes at this point) by analyzing the piece with, again, the same criticism that I think Wilde is criticizing.

    But ultimately, my analysis lead quite naturally to what I think is Wilde's conclusion, in his bold, final statement, "All art is quite useless." For truly, he did not mean the obvious, as he, himself, was an artist.

    I believe his the credo of his manifesto is: Let beauty simply be.

    Then, again - my eyes are crssoed rihgt now.

  13. I am a late in joining in on this but I really enjoyed all of you guys' thoughts.

    I really enjoyed the bit:

    No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

    I feel like, going with the last comment on letting beauty simply be, too often we over-analyze the artist's motives and beliefs and religion and point, but sometimes the artist is just expressing a feeling, posing a question or playing devil's advocate.

    I believe, a true artist can let his work become something that represents something completely outside of himself. He can write a poem on something he has never experienced because is a storyteller and an artist. He can take on the mindset of a drug dealer in a painting because, again, he is a storyteller.

    True artists express visually what philosophers contemplate thoughtfully.