Audience and Art

While reading Wilde’s work in this class and another class on queer literature, I have found myself most fascinated by Wilde’s philosophy of art. His preface to Dorian Gray explains that beauty should be enjoyed sans meaning- “l’art pour l’art.” He states: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” If any meaning is found in art at all, then it is brought by the audience rather than the artist or work itself. This message permeates his work, as I have found by reading his poems, prose, and Dorian Gray (in another class). He seems to go beyond this philosophy to assert that the human is not only a spectator but art as well. He states this, in part, in “Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” saying “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” Given what we have learned about Wilde’s personal life, he took this to heart in his way of dressing and performative lifestyle.

Wilde expands his point beautifully in “The Disciple,” recalling Narcissus, who stares into a pond to see his own beauty. The sentient pond then reveals that Narcissus allowed it to see its own beauty in the reflection of his eye. In this situation, each character is at once art and audience. It is only because they are viewed by the other that they acquire meaning, yet that meaning comes from themselves. The art that they view acts only as a mirror for them to see their own beauty, reinforcing Wilde’s view that art is nothing in itself, and merely a means for self-discovery when it is enjoyed.

This message is echoed further in Dorian Gray, where Wilde toys with the idea of humans as art. His warnings that ugly meanings are reflections of ugly people are realized in Dorian. The portrait and Dorian seem to swap places, with Dorian becoming a surface that others cannot find meaning in, and the portrait becoming pure meaning. Dorian’s inner self finds its meaning in artwork, though the meaning he finds is dependent on his own mindset and soul. This goes to show Wilde’s original philosophy. However, Dorian is not merely an audience member, but also art itself. Harry remarks that while he has not taken up an artistic hobby, he instead lives his life as a piece of art by being physically beautiful. Simultaneously, Dorian becomes a “poison” to all he meets, ruining lives and reputations. Under Wilde’s view, while Dorian is reflected in the portrait, those he interacts with find themselves in him. They see what they do not like in themselves after interacting with Dorian though he remains unchanged artistically. Thus, the human is at once audience and art in Dorian Gray as well, albeit a nastier audience than Narcissus. 

I am excited by and interested in this conception of humanity. As we read more of Wilde’s work, I look forward to characters that see reflections in others while acting as mirrors.

Into the Wilde

Even though we haven’t dived deep into Oscar Wilde’s life and work yet, I am excited to dig through the complex layers of the decadence of Wilde and the era. Previously, I had only read “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, which was a deeply introspective novel on the dangers of material beauty, but the simultaneous seductive nature of the material. This idea is central to the decadent movement, where the focus is on beauty, and enjoying that beauty no matter the form it takes. 

In our first reading from Wilde, we examined “The Critic as an Artist” where Gilbert and Earnest discussed their perceptions of art and what constitutes it. Gilbert takes charge of this conversation, declaring the epitome of art as the critic. Criticism, though born from the creation of another, is its own unique creation. As the piece of art impresses upon the audience in its own way, so too should the critic. Not only should the critic analyze, but in order to be considered a true artist, must add their own ideas to enhance the art and create something new from the outline of another. After reading his ideas, they made me realize that the art that impresses upon us comes in more forms than we realize. According to Gilbert, myself and other English majors are studying to be artists. I do not know about other students, but I have never considered myself to be an artist when writing. Upon further reflection though, it makes sense. We all strive to present our own ideas and interpretations in a captivating manner for our audience. Regardless of the artistry of my own writing, Gilbert explains that not every critic is an artist because they must add their own flair and ideas to their criticism making it an entirely new piece. Because of this, many writers wear the facade of artistry while creating absolutely nothing. In the same way, there are other “artists” who merely imitate the worlds born from the minds of true artists. 

Everything discussed by Gilbert and Earnest both broadened and narrowed the scope of what the definition of an artist is. In the decadent era everyone wanted to be the new thing, the new creation that rocked the world. Many fell short because art is not something to garner fame and success, but something to challenge and surprise. As we continue to read Wilde in this class, I am excited to decipher what made him so brilliant. With this first piece we read, he draws in his audience with this lively debate that feels as if there are truly two different people discussing this topic. By introducing his ideas in this way, Wilde more effectively seduces the reader to agree with him. He does not present his thoughts as the truth, but gives us a real discussion of how different forms of expression impress upon those who experience them. I hope this class will be a great way to broaden my own artistic prowess in writing.

Style in Poetry and Prose

Reading these poems, I was very interested in Wilde’s style of poetry writing, because of his belief in “art for the sake of art.” To me, especially in the context of poetry writing, this concept makes me think of poems with rapid fire imagery, creative uses of sound, and a lack of a real narrative thread. It was a surprise to me, then, that Wilde’s poetry was so structured, and often very narrative heavy. Most of the poems we read did contain sonic elements, but they were contained within very strict rhyme schemes. My reaction here is probably an effect of Wilde and me being born in different time periods, however, I thought it interesting because even as Wilde and his contemporaries are arguing for more creative freedom, these forms are imposing a different set of restrictions upon them.

The poems I thought that were the least restrictive were the prose poems. Even though they were heavily narrative based, I think they really challenged both the traditional narrative form and the messages surrounding the subjects they contained. Most of them involved themes of theology, mythology, and the historical figure of Jesus, who is depicted in several poems using only the pronoun “He.” I think the choice not to reveal Jesus’s name was a very cool one, as it made the reader draw the connection for themselves while allowing the prose poems to wander into more “dangerous” subject matter. For example, in “The Doer of Good,” the “He” wanders around the city, encountering people who “He” had saved. However, after being saved, these people did not follow the traditional motif of living a holier life, but instead spent the time relishing their salvation. What’s more, “He” seems powerless to change their minds, not even attempting to. This departure from traditional Biblical themes is a challenge to the time Wilde was writing in, however, because of the form, the challenge is partially disguised.

“The Decadent Movement in Literature” and “The Critic as Artist”

I’ve had an interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde for a while, but I had never read any of his works until taking this class. I found the essays of the Decadent writers to be challenging, yet interesting, and I appreciate the wit and humor of the works of Wilde we’ve read so far. However, there’s a common feature in the Decadent writers’ and Wilde’s works that bothers me immensely: the blatant classism. 

I didn’t think that classism and elitism would be such a common occurrence in these writings, but it is such a glaring feature in some of these writings that it sours my opinion on the work as a whole, even if the work manages to make some good points in other places. For instance, in Arthur Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” he speaks highly of the French poet  Mallarmé and his style of writing. Symons also speaks of how Mallarmé “always looked with intense disdain on the indiscriminate accident of universal suffrage. He has wished neither to be read nor to be understood by the bourgeois intelligence, and it is with some deliberateness of intention that he has made both issues impossible.” In this statement, Symons makes it seem as if only the aristocracy are worthy of comprehending Mallarmé’s works, and that the intelligence of the middle class will always be lacking. This is such an annoying sentiment to me. It just seems ridiculous to deliberately make your writing more complicated so that people you arbitrarily deem unworthy can’t understand it. It also seems like a way to shield yourself from criticism because if someone were to critique your writing for being difficult and overwrought, you can just say that they’re just too pedestrian to truly get it.

This classism is also glaring in “The Critic as Artist.” In the dialogue, Gilbert states, “Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the lower and middle classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more to the eye, and less and less to the ear.” The use of the words “fatal development” in regards to literacy becoming more widespread is particularly egregious to me. The entirety of this work centers around the importance of the impression of art on the viewer. However, since middle and lower class people reading is apparently a “fatal development,” this work makes it seem like only people whose opinion on art matters are members of the aristocracy. 

“The Critic as Artist” posits that art will stagnate if it’s created without criticism, however, I would also like to add that art will stagnate if only the elite are allowed to create and critique art. Letting a variety of different people with different opinions create and critique art is beneficial for its development.

Blog Post #1 Gallagher

My general sensation after reading this selection of Wilde’s poems is gloomy despair. Much of the imagery was quite beautiful, but I often found the language to have ominous undertones – especially with suggestion of a hell on earth in “The House of Judgement” and with the depiction of the weeping, resurrected man in “The Doer of Good.” Both of these examples seem to imply that life is mostly filled with sorrow, and the weeping man (Doer of Good) even suggests that he preferred his state of death to the pain of living (“But I was dead once and you raised me from the dead. What else should I do but weep?”).

Beyond this seemingly cynical tone, I also noticed the theme of being enslaved to one’s momentary pleasures or passions. For example, in “The Harlot’s House, there is a tendency to refer to the shadows in the so-called “house of lust” in terms of mechanical language (ex: mechanical grotesques, wire-pulled automatons, clockwork-puppet, horrible marionette, wheel, whir etc…). This choice in language may suggest that, like a puppet or robot, the revelers lack agency and are controlled by some other greater power (here: the potential culprit is lust). Additionally, in “The Artist,” the protagonist is influenced by an intense and spontaneous desire to create a statue dedicated to “The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.” This inspiration to create initially seems harmless enough; however, the reader later learns that he can only form this new sculpture by destroying his previous work, which appears to hold a great sentimental value to the artist because it honors his long-dead friend. The artist chooses to sacrifice his previous statue, and the new sculpture might symbolize how momentary pleasure led this man to incinerate this “sign of love” despite its value to him. Strangely, in this case and in many of the other poems, Wilde appears to offer contradictory indications of the positive or negative impact of these dominant passions on humanity. As a result, I am excited to discuss this topic in class in order to see if we can better understand this complex issue.

Through an Opera Glass

I was really intrigued by Symon’s comparison of Decadence to an opera glass in his piece “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” The Decadents’ whole ethos is an emphasis of style, cleverness and beauty over substance.  The opera glass is “a special, unique way of seeing things” (138), particular to the closer examination of an art form. As a tool of vision and perception, the opera glass is a really helpful analogy, a way of articulating how the Decadents viewed their whole movement. They were creating a particular way of experiencing art and understanding beauty, a special and unique way of seeing things, of seeing art and of rendering “our ideas, our sensations… a personal language, a language bearing our signature.” (139) Even further, the idea of particular perception they are articulating dovetails really nicely with this analogy because perception is so subjective and hinges fundamentally on the way the individual reacts to stimuli in their environment. That the opera glass is a perceptual tool further reinforces the Decedents’ assertion that what the individual sees in a work of art is a reflection of that individual and that individual alone, divorced from the emotional or perceptual effort of the artist. 

That it is specifically an opera glass is also really informative. Opera is a performative, often inaccessible art form with a reputation for elitism that typically doesn’t resonate with those who are unfamiliar with or haven’t been exposed to the language and cultural experience tied to opera. Similarly, if you don’t hold with or share the experiences of the Decadents, their work becomes all that much harder to parse and understand — what is jest, what is truth, what do they actually believe. They are interested in “a desperate endeavor to give sensation, to flash the impression of the moment, to preserve the very heart and motion of life” (138). You have to use their opera glasses, their understanding of the world to get a close enough look to understand what they are getting at.  It is interesting to note that Symons is using an analogy for viewing visual art to discuss the Decadent movement in Literature specifically, and to think about what that means for how he or other Decadents viewed the distinctions between different art forms. While I don’t buy into the idea of art for art’s sake personally, the analogy of the opera glass is easy to hold onto as a measure of the way the Decadents viewed themselves, their perception of their movement. 

Attraction to the Strange

While reading “The Harlot’s House,” I was struck by the line “Like strange mechanical grotesques” (7). We discussed the significance of “strange” in Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature” and how the word suggests queerness. It is interesting that Wilde uses strange to describe grotesques because it suggests a fascination with them. While the grotesque is horrifying, it demands a viewer’s attention, like a car crash people cannot look away from. The grotesque brings Frankenstein to mind and Milton’s Paradise Lost as a result. Professor McCrea mentioned Milton’s Satan in our discussion last week and how the most wicked character in the poem is by far the most appealing. This connects to “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” where Wilde proposes “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others” (1244). With that phrase in mind, “The Harlot’s House” is both an examination of prostitution and a deconstruction of the binaries of good and bad. We have talked about how the decadents emphasize style and form over significance, and I think that the word “mechanical” in this line highlights the lack of intentionality of the people dancing in the harlot’s house. They dance like “wire-pulled automatons / slim silhouetted skeletons” (13-14). The dancers are not considering the wickedness of their actions. While they are described as grotesques and skeletons in a poem laden with gothic elements and shadows, the puppeteering element dissolves any sense of agency they may have. There are no moral assignments in the poem, only transient figures and interactions. As the music stops and the figures return into the normal world, there is a sense that anyone could wander into the harlot’s house and back out. It is as if the mechanical grotesques and ghosts walk among us, and returning to Wilde’s philosophy, “good people” are no exception.  

Thoughts on Helas!

Out of all the poems we read for class today, the one that struck me the most was “Helas!” for its reflection of Wilde as a deeply tortured man and the connection it draws between the artist and his personal life. The line “methinks my life a twice-written scroll” really emphasizes how little control Wilde felt he had over his own life. It is clear that he had a specific image in mind for how he would live his life, but his blueprint was “Scrawled over on some boyish holiday” by circumstances outside his control. This sentiment seems to apply prophetically well to Wilde, as his life disintegrated due to his imprisonment and subsequent depression. The lines “I did but touch the honey of romance/And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?” seem to reflect Wilde’s exasperation that indulging his romantic desires would, in the eyes of society and the church, cost him dearly. I also believe that this poem can be interpreted to pertain to more than just Wilde specifically, as it would seem that it expresses the feelings of the Decadent movement as a whole; many of the writers during the time period must have felt the pressure to be different from writers past, but also realize the danger that is inherent with working against the societal norms of the time. Though Wilde and the Decadents as a whole faced far different risks, they are connected in that they both went against the norm. I feel that Wilde’s poetry is generally better when he focuses on internal subjects, such as the mind or soul, rather than observing the world around him. Though there is certainly worth to be found in each of his poems, regardless of the subject matter, it seems to me that the poems that reflect his personality the most tend to be the strongest and most emotionally moving.