Monday, July 21, 2014

Précis on Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

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.






13 comments:

Yiming Huang said...

Interesting précis. Greatly focused on the overall atmosphere and the "sense", but on my own I'm pretty interested in how you think of some specific plots (like the failed marriage and the murder part) instead of the ideology (not saying that your ideology isn't great... just my personal preference).

Erick Berrios said...

@Yiming, I actually preferred Xuanting's focus on "ideology". Oscar Wilde's preface on his book Dorian Gray is one of the most interesting parts of the book. We all wonder who art is truly for. Is it for the artist to express himself? Or is art up to the interpretation of the viewer? These questions are brought to light by Wilde's use of paradox. In my opinion art has its own aura or atmosphere, we all see a piece of art and experience a different interpretation. What you may see is not what I may see, so in my opinion art takes a life of its own. As Wilde puts it, "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors."

Yiming Huang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yiming Huang said...

@Erick, sure it is just all about my personal preference. Speaking of my ideas about the ideology used in this book, I may not focus that much on the "art" part, but the "human" part. Some discussions and thoughts in the book including the questions about youth and hedonism, the contradiction about faithfulness, loyalty and fidelity makes me wonder more than the art part. However, that does not mean that I am not interseted in discussing about art. It's just that I prefer to begin analyzing from the details, then build up a structure of the whole book as well as the ideology, and finally "return" to the question about art.

Aaron Baum said...

In the context of the other authors we've read, specifically Horkheimer and Adorno's The Culture Industry as well as Barthes Mythologies, this piece becomes even more interesting. Wilde says that the artist uses elements of reality to create art, and thus the artist's biases and ideas come secondary to the beauty of the art itself. Additionally, he asserts that art is up to the interpretation of the viewer. On the other hand, the myth does the exact opposite; it takes the free will of interpretation away from the viewer and imbues an object or event with natural properties which cannot be interpreted otherwise. Furthermore, products nowadays put the "artist" (in this case a corporation) first, promoting brand awareness, i.e., Klein's No Logo.

Neil Griffey said...

I'm glad someone tackled this one and especially glad that you did it with the care you did, unpacking it piece by piece. I can't help but imagine Wilde smirking as he wrote this. I think your hitting home the distinction that art is only to be admired is hugely important to this piece. I got the idea early on that his use of paradox and negative definition wasn't so much to empower the reader to be a proper and fair critic of his work but to confuse and disarm the reader by diminishing their credibility with themselves before pushing them into the text without their usual lens of critical thinking. Essentially through paradox of scientificity, taking the time to describe what an artist is and a vague definition of "creator of beautiful things" Wilde invites you to critique his work only by his unexplained and subjective standards meaning the reader has little to no choice but to walk into the text with open eyes looking for beauty to be admired.

Xuanting Wang said...

@Yiming, I am very interested in your idea of "begin analyzing from the details, then build up a structure of the whole book as well as the ideology", and I seem to understand what you expect to discuss about the precis. Truly, when reading the book, the thought of "human" comes into my mind earlier than the thought of "art". As a person in society, there is no doubt that Dorian is a devil with a dark heart. However, what is it like just when we read about the spot where Dorian Grey thrusts the knife into Basil's chest? The feeling is not just "what a devil" or "how horrible". It is much more complicated. There seems to be something inside ourselves to feel sorry, to feel frustrated or even sympathetic. That is why in Wilde's opinion the book reflects the spectator more than the real life. As is said in the book out of Dorian's mouth, Dorian has done what Henry says but dare not do. And moreover, I think of Henry's words as what most of the people have in mind but have never allow them to appear in words or clear thoughts. The reason why the thing of "human" is seen so clearly on Dorian but not us is that he is protected under his beautiful and naive face, but we normal people, truly existing in society, are limited by all kinds of restrictions. Dorian's beauty is also what we human want. So Dorian is like the human nature alive. Wilde gives human's nature the body of Dorian, and frees him from the bandage of society by magic. The solution of one kind of conflict, however, brings about the next. Finally it is not just about the inside and outside world, which means the difference between appearance and heart is just on the surface. It is actually the conflict of the two sides of human nature itself. That may tell a deeper stimulus of human suffering. So I suppose the "beautiful things" Wiled talked about is more of a mixture of suffering, struggling, the pursuit of happiness and the strong feeling of life in heart rather than just the bright side of life and soul. This can be the thing that leads to the "art" I discussed in my precis.

Yiming Huang said...

@Xuanting, After reading your comment, a pretty famous line from the movie [Cloud Atlas] came into my mind:

Everything is connected.

That may sound a little bit childish at first, or maybe just that I am somehow attached to this movie, but your argument about the connection between "human" and "art" had pushed this line in to a new zenith.

It looks like that I had some misunderstandings the first time I read your precis but everything is clear now since I have read it for the second time with reading your comment in the first place. I totally agree with your developemt about "art" now, and found some very insightful thoughts that may even had inspired myself on my own precis.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated Xuanting's discussion on the autobiography being both the "best" and "worst" form of criticism, although I’m still not clear on what Wilde means when he says, “the highest as the lowest.” I don’t know if that should be interpreted as “best” and “worst.” But, I’d love to be corrected! When Wilde defines his interpretation of the critic, he says that the critic is "he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things." By comparing criticism to autobiography, Wilde suggests that much is revealed about the critic when they criticize. Because Wilde believes that the purpose of art is to conceal the artist, a dichotomy is created between the artist and critic. @Aaron, I really appreciated your link to the other texts. I also found this more interesting upon rereading it.
-Allyn Benintendi

Anonymous said...

Engaging précis. I had a hard time dismantling a lot of Wilde’s claims but you made it easy to understand. The job of artists is clearly defined, namely, that the artist creates beautiful things. As I was reading further it seems that Wilde mentions another job of the artist. He states, “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.” This quote implies to me that another one of the artist’s goals would be not only to make beautiful works, but also to make texts highly controversial and interpretable, so that debate amongst critics commences.
-Samiha Baseer

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that, in “Wilde on Trial,” Wilde states, “No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to people who are not artists.” This furthers my above point about the goal of the artist to make the text as loose and ambiguous as possible.
-Samiha Baseer

Samiha Baseer said...

Engaging précis. I had a hard time dismantling a lot of Wilde’s claims but you made it easy to understand. The job of artists is clearly defined, namely, that the artist creates beautiful things. As I was reading further it seems that Wilde mentions another job of the artist. He states, “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.” This quote implies to me that another one of the artist’s goals would be not only to make beautiful works, but also to make texts highly controversial and interpretable, so that debate amongst critics commences.

Samiha Baseer said...

I would like to add that, in “Wilde on Trial,” Wilde states, “No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to people who are not artists.” This furthers my above point about the goal of the artist to make the text as loose and ambiguous as possible.