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Free Study Guide-The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde-Free BookNotes
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The artist creates beautiful things. Art aims to reveal art and conceal the artist. The critic translates impressions from the art into another medium. Criticism is a form of autobiography. People who look at something beautiful and find an ugly meaning are "corrupt without being charming." Cultivated people look at beautiful things and find beautiful meanings. The elect are those who see only beauty in beautiful things. Books canít be moral or immoral; they are only well or badly written.

People of the nineteenth century who dislike realism are like Caliban who is enraged at seeing his own face in the mirror. People of the nineteenth century who dislike romanticism are like Caliban enraged at not seeing himself in the mirror.

The subject matter of art is the moral life of people, but moral art is art that is well formed. Artists donít try to prove anything. Artists donít have ethical sympathies, which in an artist "is an unpardonable mannerism of style." The subject matter of art can include things that are morbid, because "the artist can express everything." The artistís instruments are thought and language. Vice and virtue are the materials of art. In terms of form, music is the epitome of all the arts. In terms of feeling, acting is the epitome of the arts.

Art is both surface and symbol. People who try to go beneath the surface and those who try to read the symbols "do so at their own peril." Art imitates not life, but the spectator. When there is a diversity of opinion about a work of art, the art is good. "When critics disagree the artist is in accord with him[/her]self."

The value of art is not in its usefulness. Art is useless.


The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is famous in its own right as a sort of manifesto of the Aesthetic Movement in art and literature. It consists of a series of aphorisms or epigrams (short sayings) which affirm the notions of art for artís sake. Many of these aphorisms form the basis not only of Aesthetic writing, but also Modernist writing, which was to reach its height in the 1920s. In the nineteenth century, art was supposed to be useful for the moral instruction of the people. It was supposed to mirror life and also teach its readers to live the good and moral life. Oscar Wilde opposes this view of art. For Wilde, art was valuable in its own right, not for its usefulness for other aims. His sayings about art seem strange and against the norm even for late twentieth century readers. People often read them as a humorous overstatement of principles. However, each of the statements is exactly in accord with the ideas of the Aesthetes. They are not necessarily exaggerations. Wilde consistently defended the autonomy of art, that is, the separateness of art from use value.

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