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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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What is art? In the Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde proposes that art is simply one thing: beautiful. This beauty is unlike anything else that exists in the world. Art is creative and touching as well as disturbing and unnerving. Because it is so unique, it must be explored with great care. Without caution, interpretation can lead to evaluation, which is a fault.

Oscar Wilde argues that the goal of the artist is to create an art that doesn't reflect him/herself. As Oscar Wilde proposes, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is the arts aim” (vii). This proposition claims that, for example, while looking at a painting, one shouldn't say, “Basil, I see exactly the concept and argument you're trying to communicate.” Basically, we should see art for itself, and ignore the fact that a crazy person, a genius, or just a regular person created it.

Oscar Wilde posits that, “The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist but the morality of art consists of the perfect use of an imperfect medium,” (vii). In other words, the artist is of course influenced by the morality of mankind, but the art itself is not, by a good artist at least, sculpted around said morals. Nor should the subject-matter be judged on the basis of morality. Art itself may have its own morality, but the point of Oscar Wilde's statement is that this morality is of the art alone, and not the artist. “The perfect use of an imperfect medium,” (vii). This medium is key in the artist's creation. I don't believe this medium is to be taken literally, because I think it represents the ingredients of art. There is an artist, some kind of canvas whether it be space or paper, an influence, and a muse. These imperfect things mixed
1 together create a perfect concoction of beauty. The artist's materials are almost the holiness of art. And as long as art isn't judged by its presumed hidden meanings or morality, it will be perfect.

If we judge art by its adherence to the perfect use of the medium, then no art can be moral or immoral. As written by Oscar Wilde, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (vii). If every person could judge art without the morality of the subject-matter, the world's art could be freed. Without concerning art with morals, there could be almost no censorship. If art could become entirely free-reigned as Oscar Wilde's Preface suggests, we would find ourselves appreciating some very dark, or even evil ideas. For example, take The Golden Compass. Many people find this book and its sequels in the trilogy to be immoral. These books carry a controversial side that can offend readers if taken the wrong way, and sometimes the trilogy's quality is under-looked as readers see only the offensive meanings behind the words. If these books are “immoral,” is it right to still call them beautiful? Different people believe different things. According to Oscar Wilde's proposition, any beautiful art, whether right or wrong, is simply beautiful.

In Oscar Wilde's eyes, there are three kinds of art critics. The first: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming,” (vii). This is the lowest form of critic, because these people allow themselves to see ugliness in beauty. If all art is beautiful, then those who see ugly in it, must be wrong. “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors,” (vii). Could this mean that these corrupt critics who see ugliness in beauty are actually seeing themselves? If art is a reflecting pool, one's interpretation or formed opinion of it must be an opinion of oneself. The second type of person who sees art is defined as: “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated. For those there is hope” (vii). These people do see beautiful things in beauty, but they still do not think of art as meaningless and beautiful. For example, they may be emotionally unable to think of a powerful, or disturbing piece of art as beautiful. They fail to see a deeper value past the outer layer of illusion. They are “the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty” (vii). Those who see art as solely beautiful, and nothing else, are wise. All art is beautiful, whether it be scary or hurtful, shocking or unnerving. Beauty is beauty, and those who understand this are the highest form of critic.

If our goal as art critics is to see art as beauty and nothing more, then our decision to divulge into art's meaning, is a fault. “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril” (vii). Art can be difficult to see with honest eyes, and it sometimes helps us to understand big ideas. As true as this may be, I don't think that is what Wilde means by “at their own peril” (vii). Perhaps he simply means that we are entering a critiquing form that is not only wrong, but hypocritical. Those who critique art, critique themselves. As I previously stated, Oscar Wilde tells us that art reflects the spectator. Therefore, trying to critique art and going “beneath the surface,” must be done at ones “own peril,” because it is at your risk that you enter a danger zone, and no one else's. You're own interpretation of art, and by extension, yourself, is the final conclusion of your critique. Those who try to understand art as whole won't be able to, because art is simply itself. Being itself, it is so unlike any other thing in the world and it stands alone in definition. There is no meaning in art. Art is art, beauty is beauty.

The very last line of the Preface, and certainly one of my favorites, reads “All art is quite useless,” (vii). Well, if art is useless then beauty must be useless too! Why would Oscar Wilde finish his Preface like this? The entire Preface seems to be discussing how art is simply beauty, and nothing more. Therefore at the very end, he tells us that beauty is useless. This last sentence seems to tie the entire Preface, all of its meaning and its complex, yet quite simply-stated argument, into a relation with his story, The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you'll recall, Dorian Gray is manipulated by his youth, his beauty, and that brings him to his downfall. Dorian Gray seems to think that beauty is so important, so meaningful, and alas, Oscar Wilde must completely disagree. If his Preface at all reflects his philosophies, then we can come to the conclusion that Oscar Wilde wrote a book of contradiction. Oscar Wilde calls art, and by extension beauty, useless. Thus, our beloved Dorian Gray must have been completely wrong about his opinion of youth and beauty.

Still, what I have just stated is a stretch of my own opinion. I think that when Oscar Wilde wrote this statement, even he didn't quite know what it meant. The sentence seems to exude art, and its intensity forces the reader to relinquish any artist and see only the art of the words. Like art, this sentence is so open to interpretation and could have many meanings, that perhaps the sentence itself is useless. Again, it is “the perfect use of an imperfect medium,” (vii). Oscar Wilde's five words are simple, and so thought-provokingly controversial that the sentence must therefore be, beautifully useless.

Oscar Wilde's Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray is an argument that is used as building blocks for the mood of the story. Art is defined throughout the Preface, and from these sentences, we can conclude a few concepts. First, art is a creation that is not meant to offend or to have meaning. It is a beauty, and nothing more. There are those who see this beauty, and those who do not. Those who do not are henceforth faulted for seeing ugly in art. And seeing ugliness in art, is seeing ugliness in oneself. After all, art is a reflection of the spectator and not the artist. Well, good art is made this way. Anyone who attempts to divulge into art's deeper meaning, is setting upon a dangerous quest that ultimately ends up in an unknown self-evaluation. Art should be judged with caution. When one does become a critic, one should form an opinion on the quality of art, rather than its meaning, in order to allow freedom for the artist. Without these basic standards, art is sometimes forced into the bondage of society's controversial guidelines and sullen practices of expurgation. I imagine if Oscar Wilde's Preface was an accepted philosophy, art could be completely different. There would be dark art, yes, and perhaps immoral art too, but there would be such freedom of expression that no person would feel like they were being held back by society for being different or radical. Art is art, and beauty is beauty. It is the secret that holds artists together, and with this knowledge, they never seize to amaze us with their beautiful creations. It is a beauty that can influence our minds and captivate our souls. But if this true... how is art useless?




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