Oscar Wilde’s philosophy of art is that artistry is a tool used to create art, a manifestation which has the sole purpose of being admired. He wrote, “All art is quite useless,” in the preface to his only novel in which he surmised that art exists for the surface and appreciation (Wilde). Wilde’s conduct during the trials and public reputation helped to catapult him from simple creator to the creation. Throughout the trial of Wilde’s case in which he was accused of “posing as sodomite” and later prosecuted for gross indecency, his art is used against him to determine a picture of the artist itself, which is contradictory to Wilde’s theories relating to art (Holland). His performance during the trials alludes to his theories of an artist living his art, and therefore becoming a transcendent creation beyond the moral and ethical realm of judgement. Based on Oscar Wilde’s theories about art and his performance-like demeanor during his libel trial, Wilde became the very creation of his art through persona and artificiality. This is contradictory to the intentions and foundations of the judicial system to find truth and reason in a concrete fashion. Wilde transcends this prosecution through his aesthetic philosophy and its ability to survive past the trials.
The initial trial in 1895 arose out of a personal dispute between Oscar Wilde and John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry also known as Lord Queensberry. Lord Queensberry was the father of Oscar Wilde’s close friend Lord Alfred Douglas. Lord Queensberry disliked the rumors and interpretational displays of conduct between his son and Wilde. Lord Queensberry began confronting Wilde on his intimate relations with younger men and publicly accused him of “posing as sodomite,” a crime during the Victorian era. An addressed calling card with the accusation written on it to Wilde from Lord Queensberry left at the Albermarle Club, a social club that Wilde frequented at, pushed the issue too far for Wilde in regards to his reputation. Wilde, despite urging against the action from friends and colleagues, called a trial accusing Lord Queensberry of libel. The defense quickly rose to the case of proving the accusation as a matter of necessary public information and aimed to provide information proving Wilde as a sodomite (Holland).
The defense attorney, Mr. Edward Carson, who represented Lord Queensberry used Wilde’s literary history to establish Wilde’s character. Mr. Carson cross examined Wilde in regards to The Picture of Dorian Gray insisting that the book is sodomitical. Mr Carson interrogates Wilde, “The affection and the love that is pictured of the artist toward Dorian Gray in this book of yours might lead an ordinary individual to believe it had a sodomitical tendency, might it not?” (Holland). The relationship and manners of the male characters in the novel became a sort of tool used to analyze the morals of its author. Wilde attempted to out wit the defense during the trial yet, became a spectacle of sensation. Responding to Mr. Carson’s leading question Wilde smartly replies, “I have no knowledge of the ordinary individual” (Holland). These facetious comebacks during Wilde’s cross examination set the court room atmosphere as a theatrical drama of sensation and scandal.
Every statement recorded by Wilde throughout the case and his every manner of being became a public matter. The explicit documentation of the trial and surrounding climate has aided the persistence of it’s influence in contemporary discourse. Scholar David Schulz argues that Oscar Wilde’s use of performance during the trial fostered a social drama that increased the popularity of thought that art is a simple aesthetic and nothing more. The performance exemplified the concept of artificiality in everyday life outside of the usual artistic boundaries. Schulz writes, “Without question, Wilde was the star performer. The public eager to witness their celebrities in risque melodrama on- and off stage, crowded the courtroom during all three trials” (Schulz). Descriptions of Wilde’s demeanor and reaction to his interrogations were published in newspapers and journals across the world. His witty remarks, dramatic body language, and the interaction with the crowd sent the trials from scandal to sensation.
Newspaper chronicles of the trial used a theatrical review format to discuss the court proceedings and comment on Wilde’s issue. The Star recorded in 1895, “he folded his hands on the front of the witness-box, and replied in carefully modulated monosyllables, accentuated by nods of the head, to Sir Edward Clarke’s leading questions about his early life, already described” (Schulz). The tabloids capture every twist and turn in the trials as an epic tale woven in the English judicial system. Wilde’s charisma and wit slowly faded as the trials progressed yet, the reviews continued the harsh scrutiny of his performance. The problem of the trial and its endless commentary is that Wilde’s motivations and the purpose of the court did not relate to each other. Aestheticism and the rigid logic used in court proceedings clash.
Wilde’s ideas surrounding art, known as aestheticism, created outrage in the late Victorian social structure. The Daily Telegraph writes in response to aestheticism and Wilde’s performance of artificiality in the trials, “We shall never get rid of the products unless we understand the cause; we shall never wash our hands clean of these stains unless we recognize how the waters of art have been fouled at their very source” (Schulz). Aestheticism focuses on the decoration and beauty of art rather than it’s application to politics or morals. Wilde incorporated this theory into every part of his life, “by insisting that his life was a work of art, higher in style due to a cultivated artistic sensitivity, Wilde insisted that all lives may in fact be artificial, that what is seen as ‘natural’ may in fact only be a performance misrecognized as nature” (Schulz). Wilde’s philosophies propose that life is artificial which makes his work difficult to apply to the foundations of truth and justice in the legal systems.
Using Wilde’s art as a representation of his moral or immoral lifestyle is inconclusive within the judicial prosecution of his persona. Dorian Gray and his relationship with men is not an accurate evidentiary supplement to establish the lifestyle of its author. Oscar Wilde’s work used to determine any sort of morality or ethical perception is problematic because of aestheticism and its reliance on the artificial production of life. Wilde’s art did not take a stance on politics, social behavior, or cultural commentary which, the prosecution desperately insisted on finding. His stories and writings were not intended to be read in this manner but, intended as, “commodities- works artfully stylish and artfully constructed to give aesthetic pleasure of a distinct sort” (Sloan). The concept of artificiality can not be applied to the nature of the justice system and the legal system’s intention to find truth.
The problem of the trials was Wilde’s attempt to apply his abstract theories of art and aesthetics to the rigid logical judicial system. The repercussions lie on his own behavior surrounding the legal battles. After all, Oscar Wilde chose to begin the investigations and legalities on his own will. It seems he intended on creating a showcase for the public to substantiate his theories of aestheticism and art yet, “Wilde’s most effective strategy, but the one which he grossly miscalculated, was turing the trials into a performance” (Schulz). Wilde’s attempt to use artistic beliefs on reality eventually led to his being found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor. As a result he was taken away from his children and fled England for a more removed life in Paris. The backlash from his case affected not only his personal life but, his professional life as well, “At the time of Wilde’s arrest and trial his name was removed from the theatre placards for An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, and both plays closed soon after” (Sloan). Wilde’s philosophy intends for his work to be judged as an artificial representation that can not be evaluated beyond its beauty.
The preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray has become one of Oscar Wilde’s most well-known pieces of philosophy and is arguably is his most concise theory regarding literature and his criticism of art. To understand Wilde’s conduct during his examinations in court it is imperative to understand his conclusions surrounding art. Wilde concludes that art is useless but, that its purpose is to be admired and adored. The artist is a sort of tool through which the art is created. Wilde explains, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” (Wilde). Art is not an autobiographical expression but, a manifestation above morals and ethics. Through out the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, his theory works as a narrative analogy that establishes a strong foundation of his proposal.
The whole of the fictional work, beside the preface, can be read as a manifesto or an allegory of Oscar Wilde’s intentions and perceptions of art and reality. Dorian Gray becomes the subject matter of the art and exists as an ideal manifestation. Gray’s beauty is a symbolic representation of aestheticism and is turned into art which is intended, simply, for the purpose of admiration. The picture, thanks to Gray’s unintentional jealous soul relinquishing, becomes the representation of reality to Dorian’s unchanged living creation. His immoral decisions and behaviors affect the painting and not himself because art can not be moral or immoral. Dorian Gray’s life becomes the parable to Wilde’s definition of art.
Representing everything that the artist is to Oscar Wilde is Basil Hallward, the painter that creates the ill-fated portrait of Dorian Gray. Wilde explains, “The moral life of a 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). The ability of Basil Hallward to admire and find beauty in Dorian Gray does not affect the immoral behavior of the title character. Capturing the “surface and symbol” of Dorian Gray, as the essence of youth, beauty, and innocence, is all that Basil Hallward provides (Wilde). Hallward’s fatality in the resolve is as a result of him trying to inflict a moral boundary to Dorian Gray, which therefore angered his artistic creation.
Wilde alludes to his expansive theory throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. The same knife used to kill the artist in the conclusion destroys the art. There is an interconnection between the artist and the art but, not a reflection. Wilde writes, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Wilde). The critique and opinions formed around art are an assessment of the audience. The artist is merely the creator of the mirror. Despite Wilde’s stance, throughout his legal proceedings his useless creations and amoral expressions are used against him as if offering an autobiographical insight to Wilde’s intentions and lifestyle. Excerpts of The Picture of Dorian Gray and other works of Wilde were read aloud in court to establish the innocence of the defendant and the motive for Oscar Wilde being accused of “posing as sodomite” (Holland). Despite Wilde clearly detailing his intentions in the preface to the novel, the court system used this aesthetic creation as an artifact of guilt.
Oscar Wilde’s legacy has survived despite his damaged reputation during the end of his life. His wit, intellect, and his, at times inaccurate, public depiction as a revolutionary homosexual figure have endured since the Victorian period. Wilde continued writing in prison and shortly after until his death in 1900. He reflected:
I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art….I altered the minds of men and the colours of things….I treated art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction….I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me…I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with smaller natures and meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search of new sensations… (Linder)
Perhaps, in the end Wilde lost the battle yet won the war. He has since become the creation of art and is admired for his beauty as a writer and historical social figure. Wilde has successfully transcended the judicial system and his theories of aestheticism continue to prosper.
Holland, Merlin. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. New York: Perennial, 2004. Print.
Linder, Douglas O. The Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde.” UMKC School of Law. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/prisonwritings.html>.
Schulz, David. “Redressing Oscar: Performance and the Trials of Oscar Wilde.” TDR 40.2 (1996): pp. 37-59. The MIT Press. JSTOR. 12 March 2012.
Sloan, John. Authors in Context: Oscar Wilde. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 2003. Print.