Remembering Oscar: Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Work and Preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey

Ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper

Day 247 and Oscar Wilde side by side

With all his wit and wisdom, Oscar Wilde accompanied me through my growing up. When I was a child, I remember looking up at our bookshelves and staring down at me with all-knowing eyes, in his fur coat, was Oscar Wilde. I would first encounter his work when I watched the 2002 film The Importance of Being Earnest, over and over. When I connected the movie with the play written by the face on the shelf, two of my worlds collided.

 As I entered my teens, I pursued stage acting by diving into the world of Shakespeare. When people asked me why I liked acting, I would reply with Oscar’s words, 

“I love acting. It is so much more real than life.” 

Acting gave me an outlet to create a world in which things were calculated and predictable, but still wild, still exhilarating. But my foray into the acting world came to an end when I realized that through art, I could create my own worlds.

When I was about sixteen and exploring worlds of my own, I first read The Picture of Dorian Grey. Amid the pages, the ones found beneath the book that sat on the shelf throughout my childhood, was the quote I held so dear. And for a second time, two of my worlds collided, my present and my past.

Perhaps Oscar was guiding me through my growing up. Through the story of Dorian Grey, he helped me explore my cynicism and fascination with beauty. Oscar helped me question the value of youth, and embrace the value of art and of my thoughts. Oscar’s wit and sarcasm masked his wisdom about the true nature of people and culture, he showed me how people can be disappointing and satisfying all at once and that that is what made people so worth knowing. 

Oscar was imprisoned because he was gay, imprisoned because he loved who he loved. The UK’s posthumous pardons for men imprisoned for being gay or bisexual extends into the past, but it does not discount that these men were put in prison for simply being themselves.

We must remember what we, as a culture, do to people who think differently and question and love who they love. And to remember Oscar, we can remember his words and his thoughts on art and culture as he expressed in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey,

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
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.
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.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
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.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
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.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
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.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
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.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
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 intensely.
All art is quite useless.”

(Note: I have referred to Oscar Wilde by his first name, this is because, through his writing, through time, and despite his death, we have become good friends.) 

Oscar Wilde, the face on the shelf