Quite Useless: Truth, Art, and Life in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
In his examination of art in human form, Oscar Wilde ultimately concludes that art is not a means of striving for Absolute Truth, as Plato describes Form to be. Wilde’s choice of a man as his object of analysis is no coincidence; for him, the human soul itself is Form. Wilde’s world differs from Plato’s in that it is devoid of references to a Creator. Man is at the forefront of his work and destiny. For Plato, the artist is nothing but an imitator of God’s creations (of which he is one). Wilde, on the other hand, views the artist as capable of expressing a personal truth. His expression thus has potential for perfection, being connected with the Form (as Wilde understands Form) it emulates. Wilde’s vision of art has a capability of purity and authenticity that is lacking in Plato’s perspective.
Wilde subverts the Platonic tradition by introducing a different vision of integrity, perhaps suggesting that the Victorian Europe in which he lived was in need of self-examination, artistic as well as moral. However, the secular Aestheticism of Dorian Gray was somewhat extreme to Victorian England, and was by no means universally accepted as a valid movement in a society finely tuned to the evolutions of the Anglican Church. Oscar Wilde’s deviations from Plato’s influence and his distinctive approach to artistic theory were therefore very relevant, even revolutionary in a time when the traditions of the past were stubbornly enduring.
In Book X of his Republic, Plato claims that art is a corruption of Truth; the two are opposing forces, he argues. This position is supported by his explanation of mimesis, or representation, which states there is one true Form behind every thing in existence. According to Plato’s philosophy, it is the “thingness” of the thing that makes it what it is. The “thing” that we know is merely a reproduction of its true Form. Humans, Plato argues, can never attain direct access to the Form, instead only a select few – philosophers — are able to briefly glimpse the universal and unchanging true Form. Subsequently, all art is a reproduction of a reproduction; artists depict only semblances, not realities. Thus a thing as we see it is merely a representation removed from its true state, and the painting/poem/etc. of the thing is one level further removed; “The work of the artist is the third remove from the essential nature of the thing” (Plato 327). As a cornerstone of Western philosophy, Plato’s metaphysics has given rise to a lengthy and ongoing debate over the relationship between Art and Truth (with a capital “T”).
As a student at Oxford and a gifted Greek scholar, Oscar Wilde was intimately acquainted with the works of Plato. The Picture of Dorian Gray, I argue, is Wilde’s participation in this ongoing debate. Viewed through the lens of Plato, Wilde’s work can reveal his personal ideas on the relationships between art, truth, and life. Plato’s writings examine art in a moral light, and ultimately conclude that only useful (instructive or inspirational) art must be allowed in his Republic. Wilde, conversely, states in his foreword, “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written” (Wilde 3). The “morality” (or lack thereof) in Dorian Gray is therefore central to the Wilde’s artistic manifesto. While Plato’s influence is very much present in Wilde’s work, for instance they share the concept of Form, the two writers disagree markedly on the nature of artistic truth.
I argue that Wilde uses the character of Dorian in the novel to explore the relation between Truth and different parts of an artwork: the Form (the portrait) and the representation (Dorian’s person). Dorian’s evolving relationship with his portrait, and his attitude towards time illustrate his isolation from the true human experience, even as he prides himself in experiencing more than most humans. Dorian’s failure to achieve a “harmony with self” and its Platonic implications of understanding and valuing Truth play an important part in Dorian’s dissociation from society and reality. Ultimately, the parallel between unity with one’s self and “truth” in the sense of Platonic Form/perfection are what distinguish Wilde’s Dorian Gray from its Platonic sources and establish Wilde’s artistic theory.
I contend that Wilde also uses the character of Basil Hallward, the “artist” figure in the novel who paints the notorious picture of Dorian, to engage Plato’s critique of Art. Plato argues that the artist knows nothing of his subject matter, but merely disguises his ignorance with artful tricks. In Plato’s view, the painter – especially one who worships many beauties without regard for the essential Truth of the beautiful – is to a portrait as a sophist is to language. But Wilde’s character Basil knew Dorian well, and with the aid of his artist’s eye and skill, placed him on the canvas with an extreme accuracy that was more than physical; Basil thus neatly defies Plato’s description of an artist’s limitations and is presented as capable of using art to interrogate Truth.
Plato contends that an artist can only portray his subject from a single angle, thus making the representation always partial – incomplete. But Basil produces a lifelike painting, one which all parties agree is complete even as they behold the original standing beside it. In the end, his portrait was so lifelike that Dorian, defending it from destruction, says that to destroy it would be murder (Wilde 27). Not only does this assertion challenge Plato’s position on the relation between art and Truth, it also calls into question the relation between art and life. Whereas Plato theorizes that artists’ creations are based on appearances rather than realities, Wilde portrays Basil’s art as more than simply an image or a painting; Dorian’s portrait attains an impossibly vital quality.
For Plato, this degree of accuracy – one might even say of Truth – is beyond the realm of art. He explains, “apparently the reason there is nothing [the art of representation] cannot produce is that it grasps only a small part of any object, and that only an image” (Plato 328). Basil’s other artwork is inferior when compared with Dorian’s portrait and lacks the insightful breakthrough displayed in Dorian’s embodiment on the canvas. Basil’s inferior work thus seems consistent with Plato’s generalizations about art as incomplete reproductions — partial facsimilies of an unknown and unknowable Truth. By having Basil achieve this caliber of perception in Dorian’s portrait, Wilde elevates the role of the artist to parallel that of Plato’s philosopher. As a result, Wilde suggests that art makes extraordinary insight into the human soul and Truth possible. Basil has perceived not only the exterior partial appearance of the “thing,” in this case the personage of Dorian Gray, but he has also grasped his essential Form and expressed it in the medium of paint on canvas. It is more than simply a representation of Dorian’s external appearance; it is a portrait of his soul. In this case, the soul is the true Form of the human, and the representation of it is so exact that the art and Form are indistinguishable in the painting.
Embodied Truth: Art and Reality
Over the course of the novel, however, Form and art diverge. Dorian’s own face remains fixed, ever as Basil painted it while the painted Dorian deteriorates as his soul does. In other words, the portrait functions as a direct representation of Dorian’s soul. After first reacting with horror and dismay at the discovery his portrait has altered, Dorian quickly becomes fixated with the painting. Basil’s portrait acts as a mirror, reflecting an accurate portrayal when all others are falsely present Dorian with a youthful façade. Wilde’s notion that the artist is capable of perceiving Truth akin to the insight of a philosopher is here reinforced. As the narrator describes: “there would be real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul” (Wilde 89). The portrait is presented as a potentially positive force when Dorian initially resolves it will be a “guide to him throughout life” (Wilde 81). With this, Wilde seems to be suggesting the potential for art to function as a sort of metaphysics for Dorian.
Despite his vow to lead a “guided life,” as the portrait displays the physical repercussions of his lifestyle, Dorian views this strange phenomenon in terms of novelty of experience and pleasure, as well as selfish gain. For example, after Sibyl’s death he realizes (with Lord Henry’s help) that he is not so much emotionally distraught as he is appreciative of the beautifully tragic situation (Wilde 85). His statement that he as good as killed Sibyl is immediately followed by the revelation, “Yet the roses are not less lovely for all that” (Wilde 83). Life is an extraordinary drama, and yet Dorian expresses, “[I] cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to” (Wilde 84). According to Lord Henry, this is because he is fulfilling the roles of both actor and spectator in his own great drama and thus experiences it aesthetically, rather than emotionally (Wilde 85). To Dorian, Sibyl was merely a minor character who brightened his life for a moment and then was gone. She was never real; indeed, few (if any) people are real to him. Dorian sees everything in terms of its artistic appeal as it relates to himself. From the moment he learns of her death, he sees himself and his life as art. Before, he was simply experimental in an offhand way, and still retained some form of innocence and purity of emotion in his desires and actions (for example, in his love for Sibyl). This new mix of narcissism and artistic obsession is a turning point in his life; therein lies his downfall.
As Lord Henry suggests, Dorian’s disconnection comes from being the artist of the work of art that is his life, the work of art itself, and the spectator in one. He lacks the distanced perspective necessary for a spectator to form judgment of a work. Plato would call this distance between the art and the viewer ignorance; he argues that artists seem skilled only through the onlookers’ lack of knowledge of their subjects (Plato 328-9, 331). Wilde would evidently disagree, perhaps arguing instead that this perspective is what allows different people to experience a single work of art in a variety of ways, in keeping with his epigram that “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Wilde 4). Dorian’s intimate familiarity with the work of art (himself) makes him a poor judge of it.
Dorian constantly consults the portrait, comparing it with his own reflection in a mirror (Wilde 106). He “mocks” the painting, glorying in his victory over the effects of his manner of living. The divergence of Dorian’s external and internal states represents the divergence of his soul and his external appearance and life as a drama, or art. In this divergence, Wilde finds some common ground with Plato. Though they disagree on art’s role (as corrupting or enhancing society) and the potential of the artist to capture a subject’s essence, they at least agree on the dangers that exist in discrepancies between the Form and representation, the reality and the ideal.
The appearance and actions of Dorian’s artful exterior no longer correspond with his soul, creating an interesting parallel to Plato’s ideas about the distortion of art removed from Form. Wilde condemns Dorian’s loss of integrity more than he condemns the superficially apparent fault of Dorian’s life of unchecked pleasure. Most simply, this is evidenced by the fact that his demise comes through the portrait/ himself, as opposed to an external, judgment-dealing force. Dorian’s poisoned connection with the painting connects directly to Plato’s ideas about the distortion of art as it is removed from Form. As he fails to maintain the sacred connection between himself and his soul (which Wilde presents as a means of transcending the “removes” of Plato), the unity of art, artist, and Form fades to reveal a combative artist using art as a weapon against Form. What could have been for Dorian a pure means of communication with his own soul becomes a haunting reminder of his past. Dorian’s fear of his own degenerating portrait illustrates Lord Henry’s assertion that “people are afraid of themselves (Wilde 19). With the spoliation of the portrait, art sinks to an inferior form. For example, in addition to his pleasure-seeking lifestyle, Dorian extensively collects art, jewels, and other expensive objects in an attempt to fill his life with beauty as a “means of forgetfulness,” to distract him from his “fear” of the portrait.
Dorian’s dichotomy of self also manifests in his treatment of time. Though he escapes its ravages externally, Dorian does not understand time’s essential role in all individuals’ lives. Like the painting, people are ever-changing, but Dorian denies or cannot comprehend the [trans]formative power of experience. The implications of the painting’s evolution only intrigue him because his own soul is in question. In the portrait, he sees an alternate yet omnipresent reality for himself, the temporality and devolution of which, he fights by struggling to live exclusively in the present. Unlike most portraits that represent a moment frozen in time, Dorian’s portrait possesses a vital quality by representing externally his inner changes.
After Sibyl’s death, Dorian shocks Basil by recovering so quickly, saying, “What is done is done. What is past is past” (Wilde 90). In this way, Dorian is in fact a strange combination of insatiability and selectivity (where his memories are concerned). His quest for novel experience leads him to partake recklessly and greedily of both horrors, which he attempts to ignore, and ecstasies. He constantly tries to deny the past in general, as well as specific events that plague him with anxiety, but the portrait allows the past to remain hauntingly visible. Dorian’s attitude is problematic because his whole philosophy of experience depends on the past; his recollections of these experiences are all he retains of them. Dorian tries to hoard his experiences, mistakenly believing experience is a thing to be collected, and with impunity. He does not understand that he cannot choose which experiences he retains and which he ignores; as he said himself, “What is done is done. The past is the past,” no matter what ecstasies or horrors it may contain (Wilde 90).
Drawing on a Platonic premise, Wilde says in his preface, “The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium”(Wilde 3). In the case of Dorian Gray, Wilde presents the failed life of Dorian as an imperfect use of a perfect medium, life itself. Life as art is the ultimate in aesthetic triumph, yet it is impossible to emerge with a flawless masterpiece. On the other hand, Plato writes, “Strip what the poet has to say of its poetical colouring, and I think you must have seen what it comes to in plain prose. It is like a face which was never really handsome, when it has lost the fresh bloom of youth” (Plato 331). Oscar Wilde has answered this attack on art as being without substance with his own interpretation of Plato’s comparison. His experiment of divorcing the soul from the exterior, the Form from the “poetical coloring” shows that when these are divided, art fails in its inconsistency with its true nature. When united at the beginning of the novel in Basil’s studio, Dorian’s body and soul are true art. They embody not only beauty, but also integrity through an exact correspondence.
Lord Henry says, “To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self” (Wilde 67). Of course he is defending his doctrine of selfish living, but ultimately, this is the fundamental fault of Dorian Gray. He is not in harmony with himself because he refuses to heed the warnings of his soul, which take the form of the painting he declared to be “a part of [himself]” (Wilde 27). He follows sensation intemperately, failing to see the higher pleasure which may be gained from unity with his soul. The painting constantly deteriorates because Dorian refuses to let it affect his actions and reveals the corresponding dissonance between his body and his soul as it is represented in the portrait. Thus conflicted, he remains psychologically static in a world which, he refuses to admit, is in a constant state of flux.
Plato warned against being internally divided, and he saw art as dangerous because of the divisions it could create within a man (“And in all these experiences has a man an undivided mind? Is there not an internal conflict which sets him at odds with himself in his conduct…?”) (Plato 335). Wilde agrees with Plato insofar as he supports unity with oneself. However, here the two writers’ conceptions of Truth differ. Plato sees Form as Truth; Wilde seems to present an alternate idea of a shifting Truth. Wilde’s Truth comes from the Form of the soul (represented in the portrait of Dorian) expressed in art. Whereas Plato sees art as removed from an external Truth/Form (good art is a twice removed instantiation of Truth according to Plato), Wilde sees art as aspiration towards a Truth/Form found within, which is not absolute and static, but relative and evolving.
The most evident reason Lord Henry’s New Hedonism appeals to Dorian is its support of his lifestyle of independence and self-involvement; however, Dorian fails to see the greater value in change, the natural and desirable (and usually inevitable) human process of evolving with experience. Experience-driven evolution is an aspect of pleasure, and one that Dorian missed. It is perhaps because of this that his actions are ultimately so destructive. Wilde’s novel reveals that the human experience upon which art depends is very much relative to individual experience, in a way that Dorian fails to grasp.
The end of the novel emphasizes Dorian’s refusal to acknowledge that human experience is constantly evolving leaving the relationship between Truth, art, and life unsettled. It is an ending, not a conclusion; the book finishes somewhat abruptly, with minimal closure. The exterior facade will never reconcile with his portrait, and Dorian Gray dies afraid of himself, haunted by the painting over which he once gloated triumphantly. His journey is a multi-layered study of human nature, as well as an exploration of the subtle interactions between artist, art, life, and truth.
 In addition to his later advanced study at University, the young Wilde won the Berkeley Gold Medal for his study of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin (Wilde 517)
 Plato’s issue with art is in its raw appeal to and power over the people, a power which causes them to revere and value the art without any intellectual grasp of it or assessment of its integrity.
 Plato contends that unlike the artist, the philosopher can contemplate many forms while having a single viewpoint.
Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “Picturing Dorian Gray.” The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Michael Patrick Gillespie. New York: Norton & Co., 2007. 393-409.
Plato. Republic. Trans., Ed. Francis MacDonald Cornford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Second Edition. Ed. Michael Patrick Gillespie. New York: Norton & Co., 2007.
Snapshot image from Flickr; licensed with Creative Commons attribution and share alike rights; “Paint 2” by Rev Dan Catt;