Sunday Pages: Preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
Aphorisms on art by Oscar Wilde.
I’m writing this from my hotel room in New York City, the art museum capital of the United States. I did not go to an art museum on this visit—this was a work trip—but then, I rarely went to art museums even when I lived here. Most of the time, I have the exact same reaction to museums that I do to shopping malls: I’m fine for half an hour, but after that, my head starts to swim and I make for the exit like I’m the hero of an action movie with “escape” in the title.
All week, as I edited and then wrote about Friday’s podcast, I’ve had my discussion with Ron Pollard in the back of my head: the avant-garde artist Malevich, the brutality of state censorship, the urgency of art, its ultimate purpose. There are many occupations more essential to the day-to-day operations of a functioning society than painter, pianist, play-actor, or poet—how many artsy-fartsies will that philistine Elon Musk bring on his rocket to colonize Mars?—but how dull and devoid of meaning life would be without artists. For proof of this, we need only look at what passes as art to the artless MAGA: Trump NFTs, Forgiato Blow, flags on pick-up trucks, Kevin Sorbo, the breakfast buffet at Mar-a-Lago.
Ostentation is not art. Gilt is not art. Bullying is not art. Hero worship is not art. Idolatry is not art. Confidence schemes are not art, and the con artist is no artist.
All of this called to mind the famous Preface to Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novella The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde was another artist tormented by a repressive government for his (if you pardon the pun) wild ideas. He thought his cleverness—his artistry—would save him from prosecution. It didn’t. After losing his own civil suit in one of the first-ever celebrity trials, he was convicted of gross indecency and spent two years in prison. As with Malevich’s incarceration by the KGB, the experience broke his spirit. Like Malevich, Wilde did not live long after that; he was just 46 when he died of meningitis, which probably stemmed from an injury suffered in prison. The terrible irony: all of that ugliness swirling around an aesthete, a great connoisseur of beauty.
The Preface is a series of aphorisms that collectively articulate Wilde’s feelings about the nature and purpose of art. Some of these I agree with. Some are too absolute for my taste. Some, like the bit about how books don’t have inherent morality or immorality, feel a bit dated. And the one about artists not having ethical sensibilities is just plain wrong, if you ask me. But taken together, Wilde’s aphorisms prepare us to contemplate topics that we don’t, as a culture, tend to give that much thought to—rather like how a decanter brings out the subtle flavors in a bottle of very good wine. The final aphorism, which is simultaneously true and false, never fails to move me:
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.
Shireen Mitchell, the founder of Digital Sisters/Sistas, returned to The Five 8 on Friday for a compelling discussion on royals, race, status, white European colonizers, Black single mothers, and “digital imperialism.” Even if you don’t care at all about Prince Harry, this is well worth your time: