Denis Adide

Critically analyse Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in terms of its relationship to the history of philosophy and aesthetics. Trace the ideas presented in the book in relation to the philosophical work of one or more thinker you have studied on the course with detailed reference to the concepts in question and the texts they originate in. Finally consider the relationship of the novel to aesthetics. Issues you might consider could be: is it an Ironic comment of theories of the arts, does it have a radical agenda for new aesthetics, can it be counted itself as a work of aesthetics, can it fail as a work of art and yet succeed as a work of aesthetics, could it be seen as a platonic dialogue between opposing views and so on?

It is quite plain that in order to say that the object is beautiful… everything turns on the meaning which I can give to this representation, and not on any factor which makes me dependent on the real existence of the object. 1 Before the painting - the object - appears, what is present is subjective taste. The three men, artists (those who produce from ‘instinct’ 2) in their own right due to their subject perspectives on the object yet to emerge, sit in their potential to express - to judge a beauty: ‘the expression on aesthetic ideas.’3 Though Basil works with the brush , Lord Henry paints with his words, Dorian paints with his actions from the moment the portrait is done. Beauty, as it appears within the portrait, is subjective: the result of an a-priori cognition of the apparent: ‘it forms no thought whatsoever of a perfection of the object.’ The content - thing as it is ‘in itself’ - is illusive, unexpressed, and even at the end of the narrative, shrouded in mystery.4 What then is the portrait? It, as art; is ‘useless’ and, serving as an engine for meaning, is the ‘mirror’ into its ‘spectator.’ 5 This view is quite Kantian (Copernican) in the sense of an inert subject. Hegelian thought, however, is more adept to what follows in the narrative. If ‘actuality is self-movement’ then as it is within the narrative, ‘only in the end… does the empty beginning become actual knowledge.’ 6 Innocence to Basil, corruptibility to Lord Henry, and youth to Dorian, are all ends placed at the beginning: definitions of what the ‘thing is to be [:] merely appendant beauty.’ 7 They are all as such disobeyed by the work which in its uselessness refuses purpose but accepts contemplation. The painting, like Sibyl Vane’s acting, leaves the cognition of beauty in the hands of its beholders. Thus Dorian’s disappointment and eventual rejection of Sibyl - mirrored in Basil’s disappointment, rejection of Dorian and the portrait; as well as his (Dorian’s) eventual rejection of his representation of himself within and without the portrait: art exposed as artifactual

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Immanuel Kant, Critique of judgement, excerpts in Aesthetics: A comprehensive Anthology 132 Ibid 1, 149 Ibid 1, 155 G. W. F. Hegel, trans A.V. Miller, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1977) 12 Oscar WIlde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Penguin, 2003), 4 Ibid 3 Ibid 1, 141

Denis Adide

(conjured within rather than recognized from without) beauty yielding a subjective disinterest commonly displayed. This ‘appendant beauty’ is Kant’s ‘intellectual interest’ in beauty expressed. In the case of Dorian and Basil, what they perceive as beautiful is what they feel sensually is beautiful; the truth of the object - the thing as it is ‘in itself’ - doesn’t cause the same ‘necessary delight.’ 8 To reveal the art and conceal the artist is arts aim.9 Hence aesthetic art, as art which is beautiful, is one having for its standard the reflective judgement and not organic sensation.10 Why does the painting change? As it has to be ‘art for art’s sake’, the work resists the interests impressed upon it. Disinterestedness, being one of Kant’s prerequisites for aesthetic judgement, places beauty within reflection rather than sensation. In this way there is a sense within which the changing painting expresses Dorian’s departure from true aesthetics: his vices are for vice’s sake rather than for reflective judgement. This is also evident in the way in which the work is restored to itself once Dorian stops projecting the fruits of his appetites onto it: death being symbolic of a return from sensation to disinterest. The same is evident in the plight of Sibyl Vane who - in her final performance - reveals the artist alongside the work thus loosing her aesthetic beauty - which was linked to Dorian’s interest. Had Dorian been disinterested, his judgement of her beauty would have been more objective and aesthetically good: ‘unaffected by charm or emotion’ it would have been ‘pure.’11 Her death, like his own in the end, heralding the mentioned return to disinterest; and to the ‘correctness’ of ideal beauty.12 This is Basil’s goal, apart from with Dorian’s portrait, to reveal nothing of the artist. It is the source of the need for secrecy felt by both the painter and his subject (specifically once the image begins to alter); this sense of excessive revelation. Once again the art - in its struggle for autonomy (being for it’s own sake) - wields death in the moment of revelation. More to the question of the changing painting: if the ‘defectiveness of form arises also from defectiveness of content,’ and the content is mirrored from the spectator, what is the portrait’s content?13 It is Basil’s vice and Dorian’s appetites, the once subordinate otherness encased in form. It is Dorian’s prayer answered; the suppression of the real, the encasing of spirit in substance. It is secrecy revealed, expressed on a canvas: a sort of objective representation of the subjective otherness that ‘has to be taken back.’ It is Dionysis hidden within Apollos. It is the ‘soul’ responding to its own ‘appeal;’ the ‘essence consummating

8 9

Ibid 1, 144 Ibid 5, 3 Ibid 1, 149 Ibid 1, 139 Ibid 7 G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics (Philosophy of Fine Art), excerpts in Aesthetics: A comprehensive Anthology,

10 11 12 13


Denis Adide

itself.’ 14 The painting changes because the source of its content isn’t in an inert subject but rather in a dynamic one. Art here being imitated by life so that Dorian becomes as much a work of it - art - as the painting. He is painted by art in all its forms: the brush, the idea, and the book. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion. 15 This is the veil of secrecy; the purple curtain placed in-front of the painting, the locked door who’s key is kept close, the illusion of the painting’s absence which allows Dorian and Basil to pursue their appetites. It is the hidden artist, the real Sibyl, willfully concealed by the work, allowing the work presence. The same veil that conceals unconforming elements of the agreeable making them ‘good’: the source of the double life.16 It is the veil that hides interest, staying the contemplative. It is the engine of repression which once removed, leaves the artist with a problematic and impure ‘I’; an ‘other’ to surmount - to internalize once more. Here lies the problem of aesthetic judgement: the dynamic and rhizomic nature of the subject. It changes because the soul is complex; because art is complex. It changes because in its Apollonic structure it doesn’t take into account the musical labour of the negative: the will to power of the repressed: Its form failing to fully contain its content. This Nietzchian sense of a perpetual struggle is more apt to the term repression than the moments of Hegel’s dialectic. Like the two gods, Apollos and Dionysis, there is constant effort from either towards autonomy coupled within the reality of their roots within each other. The painting changes because it is in the process of realizing itself as ‘absolute otherness’ - in the same moment of Dorian’s ‘pure self-recognition.’ A process whose outcome is death. Dorian, Basil, and Sibyl are the ‘naive’ artists who must die in order for the joy of disinterested contemplation to begin. Dorian kills Basil because he (Basil) threatens to remove the veil, exposing the truth of Dorian’s art. In the same manner, the painting survives. It is merely an ‘appearance of mere appearance’ ensuring that what Dorian stabs is his own expression, his own repressed self, and the beauty he projected onto the canvas. 17 The painting ‘in itself’ stays while the fruit of the subject dies. The same is true of Sibyl Vane, who kills the artist - the one who chose to remove the veil. Of interest here is the character of Lord Henry. He, unlike Dorian and Basil, engages with art Dorian as well as the painting - intellectually. He isn’t as interested in Dorian’s beauty, or the painting itself not enquiring about it until the denouement. His painting by influence is an intellectual exercise and though his work - Dorian - develops beyond his scope, he (Lord Henry) never reveals himself as the artist. That Dorian was his experiment was the only secret he kept. He thus never tried to master his other, escaping eventual tragedy suffered by Basil, Dorian, and Sibyl Vane. Further to that, he - unlike the others - engaged with his own vices while at the same time adhering to form. This mitigated expression is Apollos and

14 15 16 17

Ibid 4, 11 Freidrich Nietzche, The Birth of Tragedy, excerpts in Aesthetics: A comprehensive Anthology, 230 Ibid 1, 132 Ibid 15, 228

Denis Adide

Dionysis working hand in hand. It in a sense inoculates him from the desire for complete realization that overwhelms the others. This inoculated desire gives him the scope for disinterested contemplation. Looking here at the book that Lord Henry gives to Dorian and considering its effect, I parallel it with the text A Picture of Dorian Gray. It is a work of art, about a work of art, trapped in a work of art. Here its form as a book aptly serving as doorway into the content rather than the form of the content itself. Wilde’s wide knowledge of aesthetics and theories of art, as shown, are expressed in the work - content to the depth of which would take more than the form of an essay to expound.


Denis Adide

Bibliography - Immanuel Kant, Critique of judgement, excerpts in Aesthetics: A comprehensive Anthology - G. W. F. Hegel, trans A.V. Miller, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1977) - G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics (Philosophy of Fine Art), excerpts in Aesthetics: A comprehensive Anthology - Freidrich Nietzche, The Birth of Tragedy, excerpts in Aesthetics: A comprehensive Anthology - Oscar WIlde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Penguin, 2003)


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