n "The Decay of Lying," Wilde employs a dialogue between the characters Cyril and Vivian to define the relationship between art and life. Contrary to the belief of many established artists that art should represent the truest possible image of nature, Vivian asserts that all life, including nature, actually mimics art. In fact, he criticizes nature, denouncing her, "lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition." Vivian's main reasoning for his theory that "Life holds the mirror up to Art" centers upon the belief that artworks, in all forms from paintings to literature, have such profound impacts on their beholders that they influence how human beings perceive their surroundings.
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.
Vivian implies that nature would have no value without art, that it would not even exist without the artists who created it. He later goes on to deem the method of Realism a complete failure for its prison-like restriction of the human imagination and its unwarranted goal of bringing nature and life into art when really art inspires both nature and human life. Vivian's stance on the relationship between art and life stands in stark contrast to Ruskin's views on the same matter. Quite clearly, Ruskin notes the main purpose of art as striving to capture the true magnificence of natural beauty, as opposed to Vivian's character who believes that
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.
1. Ruskin, Turner, and Rossetti were very well-known names in the Victorian era both for their artworks and for their theories on art. How much of Vivian's argument regarding the failure of realism and the belief that nature and life imitate art represent Wilde's own thoughts on this issue? How does this situation compare to Ruskin's decision to publish his first work in anonymity?
2. "The Art of Lying" is considered an artistic criticism. Aside from the authors' disagreement over the relationship between art and nature, how does this criticism compare to, "On the Truth of Colour" and "On the Truth of Water" by Ruskin? Consider language, style, and tone.
3. Why did Wilde choose to discuss the themes of "The Decay of Lying" in the form of a dialogue? What are the pros and cons of writing in this style?
4. Is it feasible for Vivian to claim that artists created nature? If not intended to be a literal statement, what was Wilde's intent in including this statement in the dialogue? What exactly does it mean when Vivian states, "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?"
Last modified 20 April 2009