Friday, December 01, 2006

Useless Art?

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, Read by Michael Page, Brilliance Audio, 2005

I have never quite believed or understood the closing line of Oscar Wilde’s preface to his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless.”

Nor do I entirely accept that the author believed what he was writing either (nor am I prepared to write off the statement with the unthinking “it’s ironic” without further consideration). While that form of witty epigram works well at the beginning of a witty novel, I wonder if Wilde still felt the same way years later when writing his prison poems and essays. Immediately prior to making this statement, Wilde writes: “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.”

This is the summary, then, of Wilde’s defense of his novel. The first, much shorter edition of the novel was considerably more homoerotic and the critics were savage. Wilde added to the text, made a number of emendations, obscured some of the more blatant homoerotic overtones, and added this preface rather as a slap at these critics.

To be sure, much of the criticism of that time stemmed from precisely that crime that would later send Wilde to jail, though Dorian’s embracing of a hedonistic lifestyle surely counted among his (and Wilde’s purported) sins. Wilde wishes to set these critics right who insisted that his work was immoral, as though an inanimate thing such as a novel, a sculpture, a painting could exist as anything other than something beyond good and evil.

And so the preface is nothing so much as a pointed barb wherein Wilde attempts to inoculate the newer, longer version of his novel with the suggestion that his critics are “corrupt without being charming,” suggesting that those who “find ugly meanings in beautiful things” are deficient at criticism.

This, I believe, is in and of itself a suspect reading of criticism, made more surprising by the fact that Wilde himself was a dabbler in reviews. That the introduction was the product of hurt feelings and wounded pride more than reasoned reflection seems likely an interpretation. It begs the question as to what exactly defines for Wilde “ugly meanings” and/or “beautiful things” terms of such subjectivity that they are intensely worthless as means of discussion.

To be sure, some of this is a product of time and place. To write “The artist is the creator of beautiful things” one has to believe that all art aims at beauty, which is in and of itself a deeply romantic notion of art. Some art does, in fact, aim at the ugly quite specifically. Better by far to say perhaps that “The artist is the creator of sublime things.” Is there anything in Dorian Gray that is profoundly not beautiful?

Yes, certainly. The picture for one thing, sucking into it like a moral black hole all of the outward signs of Dorian’s wretched soul. Or perhaps the scene where Dorian, in love with the actress Sybil Vane, rejects her out of his insistence on his pride and his aesthetic beliefs. The scene of his breaking with her is a fiercely cruel rendering him as a character, repulsive, ugly, vicious, hardly close to beautiful even if Wilde should still hold to his physical perfection.

Yet these moments are sublime in the sense of having an element of artistic craftsmanship that is itself beautiful in its construction. The “art” itself is not beautiful; the artist’s labors, however, are another matter. One could convince oneself, if trying very hard, to believe that Wilde did include the struggles of the artist in this definition, but there is no indication that he went so far.

Early in the preface, Wilde makes the distinction between those who find “ugly meanings in beautiful things” and those who find “beautiful meanings in beautiful things.” Left out of these considerations then are those who find ugly meanings in ugly things and those who find beautiful meanings in ugly things. Wilde apparently considers them not at all, focused as he is on the “beautiful things.”

But if artists, as he writes, have no desire to prove anything, no “ethical sympathies,” and are never morbid, it is as if he is saying that there can be no ugly art. As he says of the morality of books, “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Well, no, not entirely. As to the morality question, undoubtedly, there is no such things as a moral book, but as to art being the creation of the beautiful and it being either done well or done badly, that is asking too much sympathy with his own views. It is unconvincing as an argument. One can deliberately present the beautiful in an ugly fashion, do it to undermine the beauty, and it can be seen as badly done, even if that were the intention. You can likewise present the ugly in an ugly fashion to underscore its hideousness. And some may call that beautiful. Art can even be created that alternates dizzyingly between modes of ugly and modes of beauty for the sake of counterpoint, disharmony, and aesthetic complexity.

As a reaction to the Victorian ideal that art should be tediously moralizing or sentimentally uplifting, Wilde’s brand of aesthetic theory provides a useful antidote, but it is prey to making the exact kind of limiting definitions as to what art should be. Just as utilitarian theorists rebelled against their predecessors’ more pecuniary approach to art and sought to define “good art” and “proper art” as being somehow beneficial to man and society, Wilde’s jibe that “all art is useless” is just as much a pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. “Art for art’s sake” may be all good and proper and true (even True), but from that one can hardly extrapolate that it is without use.

Which is not to then say that art has a use in the utilitarian sense of things as in didactic work that seeks to end evils (Uncle Tom’s Cabin springs to mind), nor that such works can’t take their place in the pantheon of art. Specific pieces of art can be societally useful, and specific pieces just as well can not; there is no necessity to have it one way or the other.

Art, as to what function is serves, what use it has in the world, can be many things. It can be palliative in its creation for the artist alone, even if no other single person experiences it, and still be beautiful and sublime and extraordinary. It is still art if no one is around to appreciate it.

Likewise, art can be a communication across the vast gulfs that separate one human being from another. Art can be a lark that turns out to have its fanciers. Art can be a protest to the powers that be. Art can be a clarion call to action or duty or other words one might capitalize as Noble Truths. Art can be no more than the doodling of Louis Armstrong on his trumpet, trying out new tunes, or it can be Curly Howard lying on his side running in a circle, or it can be a new translation of the Bible, or it can be the enjoyment a three year old gets from drawing one spiral after another on a piece of paper.

Simply put, art is a pleasure whether to create or to consume even if that pleasure brings us great discomfort in facing horrible things, even if that pleasure is in watching a jittery black and white tramp take a pratfall, even if that pleasure is as transient and as unrecorded as a late night jam session guitar solo. Art is useful in the sense that it does this alone.

And I believe that Wilde wasn’t being deliberately ironic in his statement of art’s uselessness. It reads to my ears more as a plaintive cry against the critics that they spend less time harping on his novel’s salacious elements, that they cease being of the Victorian era moralists, and embrace the art for the pleasure it brings and for no other reason than that.

All of which is rather amusing, too, when one considers how “moral” the book is in its worldview where hedonism, crime, and the breaking of hearts are considered ugly deeds that somehow scar the soul eternally. It is an interesting paradox when one considers just how many of Wilde’s fairy tales are themselves, much like Dorian Gray, preachy in their advocacy of a Christian-like socialist worldview, perhaps the epitome of utilitarian social constructions.

Michael Page manages to capture all this dynamic aesthetic wrangling in the three minutes it takes him to read this preface, then follows up nicely with lovely accents for all the characters whose names seem to have slipped my mind at this point.

All criticism is useless.

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