The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel telling the story about the corruption of a beautiful young man. In the novel, Dorian’s face remains young and beautiful, but his heart becomes devil day by day. The novel was criticized as an insult to the public morality. The preface was written by Wilde when the second version was published to defend himself.
On my view, the gist of the preface is that an artist is to create beautiful things and he shoulders no moral responsibilities. In this preface, there are five important perspectives of the discussion: art, artist, spectator, life and society. He uses a lot of paradox and metaphor.
We will see how Wilde clarifies the relations of one another and directs the readers to a deeper view.
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” The first sentence defines the job of an artist.
Then, Wilde stresses the importance of art revealing itself and concealing the artist. Why should artist be concealed? Let us continue.
Wilde then talks about the critic, pointing out that autobiography is the best and worst form of criticism. What a typical paradox of Wilde! In translating the impression of beautiful things, there is no doubt that autobiography is a very direct and vivid way of expressing. However, it is “the worst” as well. Why the worst? A natural guess can be that it introduces the author through the process of exposing the author in front of all the audience. Even only in aspect of art, it is difficult for an autobiography to remain honest with the observation of the audience. There must be something, a strong power, to change the original things thus to produce a “better” image. This power is so strong and so inevitable that it brings the “best form” straight down to the “worst”. What is the power? Again, Wilde throws out a question without giving a straight answer—but there will be one.
He goes on to say that those who see ugly meanings in beautiful things are wrong, and the people who see beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated. These blessed people know they should treat beauty as a pure thing, and their should not be anything else to look for other than beauty, indicating that the finding of anything else is to some extent misunderstanding of the artist’s intention. A book should not be judged by measurement of moral rules, but by criteria of art, in that art is the creation of beautiful things. If we go back to the question of why autobiography is the worst form of criticism, we may find it possible to explain by the moral restrictions—as long as the artist need to grant the character a real identity in true life, he/she cannot be free from the moral expectations of the day. This is the dilemma of an autobiography, and it cannot be avoided because it writes about the author him/herself. Any person of the society is responsible for the words he/she says, and the things he/she does. It is not hard to imagine that autography becomes a thing that is pushed by moral power, thus causing the reservation of the real intentions of it. Origin ideas becomes concealed and this probably undermines the true value of the writing.
After concentrating on art, artist and spectator, Wilde begans to call for attention to life and society.
Wilde uses metaphor to compare the society of the 19th century to Caliban, and thus compare the rage of the public to the rage of Caliban. Like Caliban, the public of 19th century is angry no matter he sees himself or not. When he sees himself, he is angry at the ugliness, but when he does not, he is angry for not seeing himself. The reason why the rage can never be quenched is that either the society or the Caliban is scarred with something dirty and evil itself. The only way to satisfy this impossible need is to let him see a beautiful look which is a true one as well. Sadly, this can never be done. Now that it is the fault of Caliban, and the fault of 19th century, it is reasonable that a piece of art cannot live up to both of the two expectations. The Romantic chooses beauty, and picks a way of anything but true description of life.
It is unlikely for any reader to miss the expression of “the subject-matter of the artist” and “the morality of art”. The moral of life has become merely materials in an artist’s eye and moreover, the morality of art is free from the bandage of social behaviors. Thus an artist should be out of all of this. Art is bigger and higher, that is why Wilde says: “Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.” By comparing the forms to what a musician does and the feelings to what an actor does, Wilde explained a deeper relationship between the art and the artist, the art and life: the artist gives his energy to seek and create, but the art is both separated from the artist him/herself and separated from the true life. Till now, Wilde tries to make the readers believe that free as an outsider of life is the ideal state of artist.
“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” “All art is quite useless.” Putting the two sentences together, we may find out the potential idea: an artist should be forgiven for create art, which is useless and admired. Furthermore, the art is not moral instrument, but just to be admired because of the beauty in itself. Thus to complete what an artist should do.