In "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde argues that life imitates art and that art's sole purpose is to elicit pleasure in man. He believes that art exists for its own sake, in its own realm, divorced from the influences of history and society. Wilde argues that while life and nature might provide the raw materials for art, they should never be the sole focus of art. Rather, art is supposed to create something that is above and beyond both life and nature. Wilde believes that because human perception is inevitably subjective, life will come to imitate art since art can change one's subjective outlook. In the following passage, Wilde relies heavily on the imagery of nature in order to prove its inferiority:
Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, and can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the "forms [31/32] more real than living man," and hers the great archetypes of which things that have existence are but unfinished copies. Nature has, in her eyes, no laws, no uniformity. She can work miracles at her will, and when she calls monsters from the deep they come. She can bid the almond tree blossom in winter, and send the snow upon the ripe cornfield. At her word the frost lays its silver finger on the burning mouth of June, and the winged lions creep out from the hollows of the Lydian hills. The dryads peer from the thicket as she passes by, and the brown fauns smile strangely at her when she comes near them. She has hawkfaced gods that worship her, and the centaurs gallop at her side.
1. Why does Wilde choose to use such vivid natural imagery to make a case for the superiority of art? He describes art's forms as "more real than living man." This gets at the heart of something that has always perplexed me about the anti-realistic stance.
2. Wilde claims that art has no purpose but to produce beauty. How does Wilde conceive of beauty? Can we unpack this term?
3. Is the goal of anti-realism merely to produce a kind of hyperrealism, in which by denying nature one is paradoxically better able to see it?
4. If Wilde is arguing that human subjectivity colors all of our perceptions, is anti-realistic art a way of capturing subjectivity and thus representing the human subject more faithfully? What do you think Wilde would think of such an assertion?
5. What is it that he considers more real than real?
Last modified 14 March 2002