Oscar Wilde and the New Aesthetics Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3164 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Art  (general)

Nature Imitates Art Imitating Nature

In Oscar Wilde's the Decay of Lying, one character, Vivian, claims that life and nature imitate art far more than art imitates either life or nature. This is of course dubious to the extreme, so much so that it is very easy to doubt whether Wilde himself believed it. In the following paper, I first take the claim on its face, and I give several reasons to believe it is false. Its excruciating implausibility suggests that a more charitable reading is in order, though, and I proceed toward one afterward. It is propose that Wilde did not believe that life imitates art, and he coyly gives us reasons to believe as much in the Decay of Lying itself -- it is, after all, a treatise on lying.

The crucial terms in "Life and nature imitate art…" are not very easy to pin down, especially as they were used at the time Wilde was writing, and Wilde gives us little help in the text. Although we can glean the general outlines of each term, the specifics will have to be put aside. Wilde uses "life" to refer to human life, perhaps specifically the intentional human behaviors of Western Europeans, and in some cases perhaps only such behaviors of Western European "Society." It is contrasted with "nature," for which Wilde suggests two possible denotations. It is either "natural simple instinct as opposed to self-conscious culture" (21) or "the collection of phenomena external to man" (21). Today, the contrast between what is natural and what is living is surely foreign and dubious, and -- to my ears, anyway -- the contrast between what is natural and what is intentional human behavior is as well. But the distinction between life and nature is of little importance here. We can take it that together, life and nature compose all that isn't "man-made," including humans themselves. "Art," finally, seems to refer to the artifacts of the familiar "high" arts, painting, poetry, literature, as well as the "decorative" arts, upholstery, wood-carving, perhaps carpentry. We can leave the scope of activities that generate art loose; what is crucial is, first, that the list of these activities is not radical: it does not include anything which the casual thinker would find completely surprising; and, second, art is the work of art, the artifact, not the well-lived life or an artist's interaction with the audience. Again, it is not a radical view. With these fixed, we can elaborate Wilde's thesis and reasoning. We shall see that although it is true that a great deal of life imitates art, what Wilde failed to see is that every work of art imitates at least some part of a living thing, namely, its creator's "vision." Given, then, that life -- including artists' visions -- has at least once been original, then, it shall not only be false that life imitates art far more than art imitates life; the reverse shall be true: art imitates life at all times, and life sometimes does something that is not an imitating of art.

The kernel of Wilde's reasoning is captured in this passage:

Art begins with abstract decoration with purely imaginative and decorative work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle... (21-2)

Intuitively perhaps, things are not so different in America today. We might put the point in nearly misanthropic terms: most Americans have too little imagination to do anything other than mimic their favorite one-dimensional characters on television. The use of "catch-phrases" on television situation comedies provides a ready example: they're designed for the purpose of popular repetition (thus generating free advertisements for the show). If you've heard anyone yell, "You're fired!" Or ask, "Can you hear me now?" But you've never seen the TV show the Apprentice (with Donald Trump) or the cell-phone commercial featuring the second quotation, it's likely because you've heard someone repeating one of these catch-phrases. Choosing one's words is perhaps a quite plausible case in which life imitates art: many human speakers repeat the catch-phrases they hear on TV.

But even here, a little further reflection suggests the claim's myopia. It doesn't inspire much confidence even if we limit the lives we're interested in to Americans'. In a given day, the average American does a lot of talking. Even if it's true that much of that talking repeats catch-phrases from television or popular media, it's dubious that all of it will. People very often need to communicate information for which no popular expression would suffice. I must rely on my very own wits to find a way to ask my brother whether he has heard the new Delorean album or if he knows why mom puts cheese in her pumpkin soup. There is simply no art available to imitate, and yet I find a way to ask my questions. And then my brother finds a way to answer! Two cases! But these ordinary occurrences would be extraordinary were Wilde telling us the truth about art and life.

And this suggests what I find to be a pervasive shortcoming in Wilde's account. It is somewhat appealing for a few cases, but it loses all its credibility when we attend to the finer details. As evidence to support his claim that life imitates art, Wilde suggests that his contemporaries adorn themselves so as to resemble then-recent art, "whenever one goes to a private view or an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rosetti's dream…the sweet maidenhood of the Golden Stair..." (32)

But, later on in the essay, in support of his claim that art does not reflect a culture's era, he denies that the people of the Middle Ages bore any resemblance at all to the figures on medieval stained glass or in medieval stone and wood carving, or on medieval metal-work, or tapestries, or illuminated MSS. (46)

Is this not evidence, then, that life does not imitate art? If the resemblance between figures in paintings and humans in 1880 is evidence for Wilde's thesis, then the absence of resemblance between figures in paintings and humans in the Middle Ages should be evidence against this same thesis.

Indeed, it seems that for every piece of evidence in favor of the thesis that life imitates art, there are countless examples to the contrary. Take any painting and its ostensible subject; better, take what would seem to be one of the best possible cases for Wilde: a painting of half-rotten orange and an orange which, after the completion of the paining, has become half-rotten and is at the time of writing nearly visually indiscernible from the painting, given our perspective on the two. Still! The painting is in fact in two dimensions, the orange is in (at least) three; the painted orange's colors do not change as the sun sets outside, the natural orange's do; the natural orange rolls of the table with a stiff wind, attracts flies, stinks of rot; the painted orange consists of oil, stinks of resin, is valued at 1,000 pounds, etc.

But I think there is yet an even more complete refutation of Wilde's thesis: "life" includes the imagination on which artists base their works. We can illustrate the point with a crude account of mental representation. Suppose that when an artist conceives of, say, a sculpture, she forms an image of "in her mind." As she works the clay, she seeks to make it resemble the image in her head. When a truly skilled sculptor completes a work, her art is a very good likeness of her image. The art she has created imitates what she has imagined. This account needn't be anywhere near true; so long as it can be truly said that the artist's work imitates her conception, it will be true that works of art imitate life.

Furthermore, so far as it is essential to a work of art that it reflects its creator's "vision," so far shall it be *essential* to art that it imitate life. If this is the way it is -- if it is constitutive of art that it imitate life -- then there is no art that does not imitate life. If this is so, then it cannot be true that life imitates art more than art imitates life. For even if life *always* imitates art, the two will imitate each other equally, so far as percentages are concerned: each imitates the other 100% of the time. But if life ever imitates something other than art -- nature perhaps -- or if it does something original, then it should be that art imitates life more than life imitates art.

Before moving on to a more sympathetic interpretation of the Decay of Lying, I would like to consider another claim that Wilde seems to use as a corollary of the primary thesis just discussed. In support of the claim that nature… [END OF PREVIEW]

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