Aristotle vs. Oscar Wilde
"But if on the other hand art imitates nature, and it is the part of the same discipline to know the form and the matter up to a point . . . ."
"Each step then in the series is for the sake of the next; and generally art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitates her."
Aristotle, Physics, Part 2 & Part 8. 350 BCE.
"Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life".
Iconoclastically expressed in his essay, Oscar Wilde wrote this remark as part of a Platonic dialogue between two characters Vivian and Cyril entitled "The Decay of Lying." 1. Oscar Wilde goes further and suggests that "Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment." Wilde satirically concludes that "Lying for the sake of the improvement of the young, which is the basis of home education, still lingers amongst us, and its advantages are so admirably set forth in the early books of Plato's Republic that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them here." He suggests that one of art's purposes is to lie, and not reveal the realism that so many artists of his time during the late nineteenth century seriously tried to convey. Such is the many fine works of Frederic E. Church.
Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara's "Horseshoe Falls," oil on canvas, 1856-57.
Experts contend "Wilde holds that anti-mimesis 2 'results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.' "
Connie Smith Siegel,3 San Geronimo Valley & Edgar Payne's Salinas Valley, two California landscapes.
So what was the point of Wilde's contradiction of Aristotle's dictum: "art partly completes what nature cannot"? What of the notion of artistic expression arising from life's many and varied vicissitudes? Wilde has his character in the dialogue say "VIVIAN: Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty." Then the discussion dwells on the merits of seeing a Constable or other landscape paintings in an art gallery.
John Constable's, Flatford Marsh, oil on canvas, 1816-17. On display at Tate Britain.
John Constable's canvas is of a navigable river in Sussex, England and is very appropriate to show in respect to Wilde's discussion because the painter Constable, himself, had decided to complete the work –according to the curators at the Tate Gallery– in the outdoors. Constable was conscientious to finish the painting in the native setting he depicted on the canvas.
Vivian tells Cyril [the two participants in Wilde's dialogue] that "My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition."
Some art that portrays natural settings or subjects would appear to contradict Wilde's assertion and sustain Aristotle's notion that art be didactic. That is all art must instruct the senses and the sensibilities to understand more profoundly the role of both expression and the subject expressed by artists as we hear, see, or encounter the work of art.
Wilde objected and instead asserted that:
- Art never expresses anything but itself
- All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals
- Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
- Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art
While Wilde did not specifically dwell on the subject, the art of trompe-l'oeil, or painting of optical illusions, does move in the direction that Wilde argued fine, well-crafted art should manifest.
Another contemporary artist Diana Beltran Herrara disagrees in some part with the arguments raised in Wilde's dialogue. She insists that her "realization a couple of years ago." began with an emotional recognition. “I started to feel closer to nature, but more, I recognized that I was in nature living at the same time as others, and I wasn’t any more special than any other element,” says the Colombian artist. A bit conflicted, she says, “I had this knowledge of things living around me, but did I really know about them? I decided that it was time to play again, to rediscover the place where I was living.”4
1, Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying in Intentions (1891).
2, mimesis refers to the "representation or imitation of the real world in art, poetry, drama, and literature."
3, The Artist's statement
"I began to work outside in the mid-sixties, finding a renewed meaning in life walking and drawing in the winter fields of Colorado.... Waking up in this last decade (1990s) to the vulnerability of the earth, I adapted my work for use in the peace and environmental community. The urgent concern for the earth remains, but under all and most enduring is the deep satisfaction I feel simply being in natural places."
Connie Smith Siegel (1990)
Diana Beltran Herrara, "Birds of Florida"
4, Read more: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/artscience/2013/09/diana-beltran-herreras-flock-of-paper-birds/#ixzz2gZkNJEm4
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
5, Martin Kemp. Visualization, The nature book of Art and Science. Berkeley, Ca.: U.C. Press, 2000) pp, 12-13. Visualization_Mona's-laws.html
6, Nature, guide to discussions on this site of related topics.
Edward Hopper – Gas, 1940.
Edward Hopper – Night Hawks, 1942.
Joseph Mallord William Turner – Rain, Speed and Steam, 1844.
Frederic Edwin Church – paintings, 1845-1900.
Thomas Cole – paintings, 1824-1840.
Visual Arts archive.
Perspective in painting & drawing.
In Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," his character Vivian makes a case for life imitating art rather than art imitating life, claiming that "Life is Art's best, Art's only pupil." Vivian expresses a strong distaste for modern, realist art, which in his mind sets a bad example for life to follow, a departure from "the dignify of Pheidias as well as the grace of Praxiteles." Vivian sums up,
All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life - the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it — is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms [40/41] through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Cæsar.
Not content to state that people imitate art in their lives, Vivian goes on to describe how even nature imitates art. "Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows?" he asks. Although this seems a strange proposition at first, Vivian goes on to explain that while nature itself does not imitate art, humans' perception of nature, which in the end proves most important, reacts strongly to art. "For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that he quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us," he notes.
Describing a few other ways in which life imitates art, Vivian concludes, "Art never expresses anything but itself." This, he explains, not only gives art its glory over life, but also makes up part of doctrine of the aesthetics. Indeed, at the very end of "The Decay of Lying," both characters come to accept the believes of the aesthetics, and as they step out into the evening, Vivian, stating her point one last time, closes with, "At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets."
1. Amongst other things, Vivian describes the dangers of youngsters imitating the stories they read:
The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of [34/35] the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers.
The United States Surgeon General apparently agrees completely with Wilde:
A substantial body of research now indicates that exposure to media violence increases children's physically and verbally aggressive behavior in the short term (within hours to days of exposure). Media violence also increases aggressive attitudes and emotions, which are theoretically linked to aggressive and violent behavior. Findings from a smaller body of longitudinal studies suggest a small but statistically significant impact on aggression over many years.
How relevant do Vivian's claims prove in today's world? Does Vivian's explanation of the effect seem accurate?
2. Vivian argues for the use of lying as a tool for the imagination to create a more beautiful world than that in which we live. How does this conception of deception compare to that Beerbohm presents in The "Pervasion of Rouge," where he argues,
And, truly, of all the good things that will happen with the full revival of cosmetics, one of the best is that surface will finally be severed from soul. That damnable confusion will be solved by the extinguishing of a prejudice which, as I suggest, itself created. [116/117] Too long has the face been degraded from its rank as a thing of beauty to a mere vulgar index of character or emotion...And the use of cosmetics, the masking of the face, will change this. We shall gaze at a woman merely because she is beautiful, not stare into her face anxiously, as into the face of a barometer.
How do the two authors expect readers to react to their essays?
3. What about Wilde's style conveys to the reader his intention in writing "The Decay of Lying"? Do the characters present Wilde's actual point of view?
4. After Romanticism, which reveled in the natural as a response to the growing coldness of the industrial world, what movement or various factors brought on aestheticism? Why did people shift towards a spiritual detachment from beauty? How were the Aesthetes received by most Victorians?
"Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General," Appendix 4-B, http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/chapter4/appendix4bsec3.html 23 April 2009.
Last modified 23 April 2009