Portrait of the Art as an Old Lie

Portrait of the Art as an Old Lie

Written by Adrian Kahali

for Prof. Shalon Noble

If any single statement can be made about art, there can and will be another to refute it. Art, in all its subjectivity and diversity, is one of the most powerful tools made available to us (and by us); it can provoke thought, incite discussion, inspire war, take lives, and create love through those who wield it, and its possibilities are limited only by human potential. There is no telling why art has such a profound effect on us, since, at least in the words of Oscar Wilde, “All art is quite useless” (4). However, there is certainly no denying the ethical concern that it raises. If people suffer for art, must we blame them? The artist? The art itself? Oscar Wilde, in at least one of his works, seems to argue for the latter. The Picture of Dorian Gray makes the case that “Art for Art’s Sake” is purely destructive by use of the Death of the Author phenomenon occurring within its cast.

From the onset, the text almost exclusively shows “Art for Art’s Sake” as leading to the destruction of those who admire it. This is obviously embodied by Dorian, the “art” in Wilde’s metaphor, for after his prayer comes true, he begins to exhibit every single one of art’s most prominent qualities: he becomes ageless and timeless, shows no signs of weariness despite the damage he inflicts, remains physically beautiful, exists for no apparent reason other than for his own qualities, and serves no obvious purpose other than to make victims of circumstance. With this metaphor in place, Wilde puts emphasis on the people Dorian hurts, none of them being of his “creator” (Basil)’s volition. In fact, it is quite the contrary; Basil is clearly uneasy with the damage Dorian has been causing, and tells him that “When you met Lady Gwendolen, not a breath of scandal had ever touched her. Is there a single decent woman in London now who would drive with her in the Park?… You have a wonderful influence. Let it be for good, not for evil. They say that you corrupt every one with whom you become intimate” (128-129). Despite these requests, Dorian continues his destructive path for the rest of the story, proving that Basil had no control over the influence that his art had on people; this is the Death of the Author. With this, Wilde shows that “Art for Art’s Sake” can only lead a destructive path against admirers, despite the artist’s best intentions.

The novel also strongly alludes to “Art for Art’s Sake” having a certain deceptiveness, which is a destructive quality. Once again, the novel calls forth one of its characters to evidence this: Sybil Vane. This young, talented actress catches Dorian’s eye immediately and excites him with her “little flower-like face, a small Greek head with plaited coils of dark-brown hair, eyes that were violet wells of passion, lips that were like the petals of a rose” (45) and her voice, which he claims is one of two that he “shall never forget” (45). He is enamored with this girl, and views her differently than other women, who “have their stereotyped smile, and their fashionable manner, but the only thing worth loving is an actress” (46). He truly believes that “she is a genius” (42). This absolute infatuation with her performance is what makes his sudden disdain for her so striking; all it takes is a single subpar performance for Dorian to lose interest. He proclaims that “you have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity… You are shallow and stupid… Without your art, you are nothing… What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face” (75). This effortlessly proves that Dorian’s idea of Sybil Vane is shallow, superficial, and deceptive. Sybil’s art, which she was performing for her own sake rather than for his, is what interested Dorian; when it is no longer, Dorian sees Sybil for what she truly is, and this displeases him. Lord Henry recognizes this and agrees, stating after Vane’s suicide that Dorian may mourn the characters that she interpreted, but telling him to not “waste your tears over Sybil Vane. She was less real than they are” (89). This interpretation may act both literally and figuratively as the “Death of the Author” in Sybil Vane’s case, since her death had no effect on Dorian and in Lord Henry’s blatant infatuation with the characters she performed as. Briefly put, Wilde uses this part of the book to show how “Art for Art’s Sake” is fraudulent, deceptive, and ultimately destructive.

In perhaps its most devastating blow, “Art for Art’s Sake” cannot help but disappoint the artist and destroy him in part by doing so. Basil is the main exhibit of this phenomenon; from the beginning, it is clear that he takes great pride in this vision of Dorian that he has realized. When Lord Henry inquires about the reason why he refuses to show it, Basil shyly replies that he has put too much of himself in it, that he is “afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my soul” (8). It comes as little surprise, then, when Basil becomes visibly distraught with Dorian taking an interest in Lord Henry and straying from him; it is his death as an artist and the most obvious manifestation of the “Death of the Author,” a piece of him being taken away and becoming a blank canvas for anyone to do with it as they will. With this, Wilde proves that the artist is not only not to blame for his art’s power, but that he is in fact a victim of his art, which will always disappoint him and lead a destructive path against his soul since it exists only for its own sake, not for his.

In conclusion, “Art for Art’s Sake” is, all told, purely destructive. A different essay may touch on why it is all still worth it (because it most certainly is).


Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.


About the Author:

Adrian Kahali is an 18-year-old student, writer, and musician who is currently in Continuing Education in hopes of being admitted to the Literature profile of Arts, Literature and Communication at Dawson College in the Fall of 2017. He has always enjoyed writing of all forms, and has penned short poems and prose for as long as he can remember. Adrian is also an accomplished guitarist and pianist, but enjoys music most when it is coupled with brilliant writing. He hopes to complete his program at Dawson before pursuing further studies in literature and teaching.

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