The Decay of Lying
We continue our ongoing conversaion on the usefulness and morality of art (or lackthereof) by answering Herx's call for more missives on the topic with Oscar Wilde's Decay of Lying.
It's not a long piece, and it's very funny, and I highly recommend that anyone with twenty minutes to half an hour of free time check it out. It's also, delightfully enough, phrased as a dialogue between two friends.
Wilde's central points are these: lying is in decline, the mask is more interesting that the face, the real world is anathema to art, art's only duty is to itself (and, perhaps, to beauty) and (most interestingly but irrelevant to our conversation) nature is shaped by art, rather than vice versa.
You can imagine, then, what Wilde's attitudes are towards ideas of usefulness or virtue... he has no patience for them:
The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art.
And later on he distills his argument to two key precepts:
Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is-not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct [54/55] opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter.
There's a lot more to read and enjoy here, but one could call Wilde the anti-Rousseau, just as radical and didactic, but taking an absolutely opposing opinion. Worth adding into the mix, methinks. And it's hilarious to boot.
Of course, I find it hard to agree wholeheartedly with Wilde... his view (like Rousseau or Gardner's even) is far too narrow for my tastes. With Rousseau I suppose the question to ask is... well, yes, but what about the rest of human experience that isn't practical? and to Wilde the question to ask is well, yes, but why bother making art then?