Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray consists of a list of Wilde’s aphorisms that deal directly with art, artists, critics, and audience but only obliquely with the novel. They speak to the importance of beauty espoused by the Aesthetic movement. The Aesthetic Movement developed in the last decades of the 19th century. Originating in France with Théophile Gautier, it reflected the sense of frustration and uncertainty of the artist, his reaction against materialism and the restrictive moral code of the bourgeoisie. The French artists ‘escaped’ into aesthetic isolation, into what Gautier defined ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ (Arte per amore dell’Arte). The bohemian embodied his protest against the monotony and vulgarity of bourgeois life, leading an unconventional existence, pursuing sensation and excess, cultivating art and beauty. Walter Pater is regarded as the theorist of the Aesthetic Movement in England, which considered art more important than life as a reaction to the ugliness and the materialism of industrialization, but also as a protest against the falsity and the excessive moralism of the Victorian Age. Pater’s works had a deep influence on Oscar Wilde.
The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
(Notice Wilde’s terminal use of the word “beautiful.” He leaves no room for any other descriptor of art. He does not say “The Artist is the creator of beautiful and not-so-beautiful things.” Art is ONLY beautiful.)
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
(The true artistic signature, according to Wilde, will stamp itself through the universal recognition of the artist’s style, rather than the artist’s name.)
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
(This is not a compliment. Wilde is basically saying that critics could never understand artists, therefore, their opinions on art are null.)
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
(People can only judge others according to what they can draw from their own lives. Their judgment is a reflection of themselves, and not of the artist. This is a direct jab at Victorians. Wilde was consistently criticized by prudish Victorians for his effeminate use of the word “charming” to describe things. To be “corrupt without being charming” is a message to his critics, telling them that they are ugly people as it is, with the added insult of the use of the word “charming” yet again. (See Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris)
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
( The term “elect” refers to those who have finally realized the aesthetic ideal of finding nothing but beauty in Art.)
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.
(This refers to the aesthetic ideal of Art. Art is not meant to educate or moralize. Writing, as an art form, is meant to inspire. If a book leaves a bad impression upon the reader, it is not due to the topic dealt with, but due to the writer’s lack of artistic skill.)
The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
(Victorians were quite hypocritical. On a societal level, they preached virtue and prudishness, while poverty, opium dens, and prostitution grew more and more rampant. Wilde would have known this, as he was friends with Alfred Taylor, a notorious street chap who procured male escorts for upper-class men (see The Trials of Oscar Wilde by H. Montgomery Hyde).
The nineteenth-century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
( This is a reference to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The character of Caliban is the half-man, half-beast who inhabits the deserted island where the main characters have wrecked.)
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.
( An artist is not a moralist, however, they have the artistic license to use someone’s moral choices as a theme for artistic work. The ultimate goal of Art is to transform the imperfections of being human.)
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
(This is an example of a typical Wildean paradox. Obviously, things that are true can be proved. However, Wilde adds irony to this statement to provoke curiosity among his followers, and discomfort among his critics.)
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
(Another example of the aesthetic principle of L’Art pour L’Art, Art for Art’s sake. Wilde insists that the public should cease to judge Art and, instead, admire it for what it is: a product of a higher emotional, even spiritual, state.)
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
(Vice and Virtue would be the modern “Ying and Yang,” or polar opposites. The more extremes an artist can experience, the more artistic experiences the artist can produce.)
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
(Art is meant to imitate life and represent it in multidimensional varieties.)
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
(Literally paraphrased, it means that you cannot “read into art” the way you would read into history or a science book, for example, where there are clear patterns and trends established by facts.)
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
(By “new” Wilde does not refer to “recent,” but to something so well-made that, even if it is hundreds of years old, it still inspires discourse and argument. An example is the Mona Lisa. Wilde described himself as a “lover of the young in everything”; this is why he uses the word “new” almost interchangeably with “worthy,” “impressive,” and even “beautiful.”)
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
(Criticism should not count in Art, since there is no rubric to determine what is good, better, or best. Whatever critics say should not matter to the artist, whose goal is to create art. )
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensively.
(Once again, this goes back to the concept of Art for the sake of Art “L’Art pour L’Art” that exists at the epicenter of the aesthetic movement. Art is not supposed to educate, moralize, judge, or condone. Art is created for the purpose of admiration. If it is meant to educate, then it is no longer meant to be merely admired. It loses its purpose altogether.)
All art is quite useless.
(This celebrated and controversial statement embodies the aesthetic ideal that Art should not be used as a conduit of morality, judgement, or condemnation. To Wilde and the aesthetes, art is amoral. It exists merely for its own sake, “L’art pour l’art.” Hence, when the word “useless” is applied to this statement it is used in its literary, and not in a contextual, meaning. Art simply is to be admired, not “used.”)