Dorian Gray: Art for Art's Sake?
Oscar Wilde’s iconic life and career as a deeply philosophical literary artist was never better represented than through his intellectual and provocative novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Its first publication in 1890 was heavily censored, much to the dismay of its creator, whose turbulent life and complex being were heavily reflected through its plot and several of its characters. A frequently addressed theme, art and its purpose, appears in Wilde’s witty commentary between characters and the many facets of their experiences that often address much deeper concepts than they initially appear to. A careful reader of Dorian Gray will quickly realize that Mr. Wilde intended to convey more profound messages than even the timeless lessons he was teaching surrounding youth, beauty, and the social state of late 19th century England.
Oscar Wilde’s rambling preface to A Picture of Dorian Gray was written in 1891, the year that his uncensored version was released, and he was able to combat the critics whose censorship attempted to stifle the provocative and deep concepts of his literary art in the previous year. It is in this preface that the reader begins to understand not only how witty and philosophical his ideas are, but just what his novel is meant to convey on the concepts of art and its purpose. Wilde famously coined the term “art for art’s sake,” and despite some potentially misleading and superficially confusing statements like, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming,” and “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,” (p.1) Wilde concludes the preface with “All art is quite useless.” (p.2) This implication leads the reader into a dizzying rabbit hole whose ultimate lesson is best interpreted as something along the lines of the following: Art is subjective, symbolic, irrational, and serves many purposes, but as a whole, it serves no purpose whatsoever beyond physically expressing personal emotion.
Oscar Wilde asserts that “the artist is the creator of beautiful things,” (p.1) but the artist’s relationship to the art he creates is explored in various mediums throughout the story. The first chapter of Dorian Gray begins our introduction to the three main characters, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry. Each of these three characters represents the three types of people related to a work of art. They are, respectfully: the subject, the artist, and the critic. The critic and the artist are in agreement that the piece which is being painted is the artist’s greatest creation thus far, and while the subject’s relationship to the piece changes throughout the story as a main facet of the plot and message, so does the artist’s. Basil is the creator of the painting that ultimately destroys Dorian’s natural life, and as Dorian proclaims, “you met me, you flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks,” and, “you finished a portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty” (p.161) accusing Basil of grooming the vain monster in him that ultimately initiated his own curse. Just before the artist is murdered by the subject of his life’s greatest work, he realizes his role through this dialogue, forever changing his perception of the art he has brought to life, and all the evils that are associated with it.
As the novel explores all existing varieties of art and integrates them into the complex story that coexists within, the artists are also embodied and offer depth to the reader’s understanding of the relationships between creator and created. Dorian’s condemning perception of his fiancé, Sibyl Vane, after her first poor performance in the theater production of “Romeo and Juliet” was justified in his mind by what he understood to be the artist’s appropriate relationship to her art. Claiming that her poor performance has caused his love for her to cease, he explains that to him, “Without your art you are nothing,” and “I loved you because you were marvelous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art.” (p.91) In the eyes of Dorian Gray, the creation of great art is what gives meaning, purpose, and tangibility to the character of the artist, and without great art, its creator, “is merely a commonplace, mediocre actress” (p.88) without the integrated appeal of the art itself. Sibyl Vane must have felt some of the same sentiment as her lover, as she commits suicide in the same evening that Dorian condemns her.
Oscar Wilde’s interpretation of art and its meaning, in all of its forms, are evident with careful analyzation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though literary scholars could take more than one hundred pages to delve into the depths of this theme and all its parts, the most evident representations to the first time reader were represented through the creations of Sibyl Vane and Basil Hallward. Truly great art can not be separated from the artist, whose relationship to his creations are as complex and indefinable as that of a God and its earth. Or maybe, as in the perplexing mind of Oscar Wilde, “All art is quite useless.” (p.1)