Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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?


At 12:38 PM, Blogger Herxanthikles said...

Here’s a problem with the Decay of Lying: Wilde proposes that Nature imitates Art, in that a painting can transform impersonal natural phenomena (like clouds) into something we can appreciate aesthetically. He also proposes that Life imitates Art, in that we imitate what we read in books and nowadays films, such as the Werther Fever that had moody 19th century young men shooting themselves in imitation of Goethe’s hero.

But one “imitation” is quite different from the other.
If Life were to imitate Art the way Wilde says Nature imitates Art, Art could make us turn the randomness of everyday life into something we would appreciate aesthetically. This could be achieved through realism or other means (Is 4’33 the ultimate realist piece of music?) but it seems to me a worthy goal, and one consistent with Wilde’s ideals, if not his tastes.

A postscript: I have no idea if Charles Reade is any good or not, but it is chilling to read Wilde criticizing Reade for devoting his energies to exposing “the state of our convict prisons” when those prisons were destined to ruin Wilde’s health and kill him not long after he was released from them.

At 11:33 AM, Blogger parabasis said...

A postscript to your postscript: The other thing raised by Wilde's Decay of Lying (although not be him, I mean raised by the act of reading it) is how much the biography of the artist matters. What does it mean for a closeted homosexual lving at a time when homosexuality was so punished by society to write an argument for why living a lie was good?

And should we be asking that question? Is it totally outside the actual purview of the piece we're discussing?

Good thoughts, Herx.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Scott Walters said...

It seems to me that Wilde is amplifying Kant's idea on the uselessness of art -- that what makes art art is that it is useless for anything else except aesthetic contemplation. To me, this argument might apply best to orchestral music, but theatre with its foundation in mimesis? That seems doubtful to me. Wilde is turning the arts into baubles.


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