n "The Decay of Lying" Oscar Wilde outlines the doctrines of aestheticism in a mock-debate. Vivian, the more eloquent of the two debaters, defends aestheticism. He argues that "all bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals" and that "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art." Vivian's bold assertions shock Cyril, who believes that art should seek to imitate nature. Cyril prods Vivian to defend his assertions, which he does convincingly through philosophical arguments and examples drawn from art and literature:
CYRIL. The theory is certainly a very curious one, but to make it complete you must show that Nature, no less than Life, is an imitation of Art. Are you prepared to prove that?
VIVIAN. My dear fellow, I am prepared to prove anything.
CYRIL. Nature follows the landscape painter, then, and takes her effects from him?
VIVIAN. Certainly. Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical [41/42] point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, [42/43] Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter's worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised. Of course, I [43/44] am quite ready to admit that Life very often commits the same error. She produces her false Renés and her sham Vautrins, just as Nature gives us, on one day a doubtful Cuyp, and on another a more than questionable Rousseau. Still, Nature irritates one more when she does things of that kind. It seems so stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary. A false Vautrin might be delightful. A doubtful Cuyp is unbearable. However, I don't want to be too hard on Nature.
Two sea paintings by Henry Moore (1831-189): Stormy Seas and Kelp Gatherers — a Grey Morning. [click on thumbnails for larger images.]
CYRIL. You have proved it to my dissatisfaction, which is better.
1. Although Vivian ultimately sways Cyril, the beliefs of Wilde are less clear. Vivian draws a clear line between author and character, protesting that Hamlet's aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature "it is merely a dramatic utterance, and no more represents Shakespeare's real views upon art than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon morals." Are Vivian's assertions a "dramatic utterance" or do they reflect Wilde's views? More broadly, is it possible to tell the truth in an essay praising lies?
2. Wilde named Vivian and Cyril after his children. What might this reveal about the relationship between Wilde and his characters?
3. In "," George Landow observes that "many of Wilde's most apparently outrageous statements about art and nature turn out to be Ruskinian to the core". In Modern Painters, Volume 1, Ruskin proposes that :
if painters would only go out to the nearest common, and take the nearest dirty pond among the furze, and draw that thoroughly; not considering that it is water that they are drawing, and that water must be done in a certain way, but drawing determinedly what they see… they could come home with such a notion of water-painting as might save me and every one else all the trouble of writing about the matter.
However, in "The Decay of Living", Vivian asserts nearly the opposite.
"The popular cry of our time is "Let us return to Life and Nature; they will recreate Art for us, and send the red blood coursing through her veins; they will shoe her feet with swiftness and make her hand strong." But, alas I we are mistaken in our amiable and well-meaning efforts. Nature is always behind the age. And as for Life, she is 'the solvent that breaks up Art, the enemy that lays waste her house."
How is Ruskin's influence evident in Wilde's writing? Where does Wilde disagree with Ruskin?
4. The conversation between Vivian and Cyril resembles the mock-debates between Socrates and his intellectual opponents in Plato's writing. Why does Wilde evoke Plato? How does the form Wilde uses affect his message? How might this choice be regarded as an aesthetic decision in light of Vivian's claim that "to us, who live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own.
5. In his lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel recognized three distinct stages in art: symbolic, classical, and romantic. In the first, art tries to express nature but cannot. In the second, art captures nature without distortion. In the highest art, romantic, however, art no longer attempts to portray nature exactly, but in a more emotional, inward-looking way.
Vivian also describes three stages of art:
Art begins with abstract decoration with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment. The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness. That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.
How do Vivian's three stages differ from Hegel's. How are they different?
Last modified 21 November 2006