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The languages of art and life

April 21, 2014

I’ve recently been reading around in Oscar Wilde’s critical-artistic prose, and I want to call people’s attention to “The Decay of Lying,” a delightfully flippant quasi-Platonic dialogue.

Now, only a Philistine, one might think, would actually analyze it and try to figure out what it’s trying to say; after all, isn’t the point of writing a dialogue to avoid coming down on one side or the other? Still, I think it’s worth trying. Wilde’s avatar Vivian wraps up matters by proclaiming the three doctrines of his new aesthetics, and whether or not he means to endorse them, Wilde clearly wants us to consider what consequences they would have were they true. And are they true? At first glance it seems impossible–they’re ridiculously expansive. At second glance they acquire an insidious attraction–doesn’t life imitate art? Doesn’t art translate life? Isn’t art its own autonomous self-expression? But it only lasts so long as we assume that these words are able to maintain their normal meaning while at the same time acquiring a metaphysical significance. When we try to make sense of how Vivian actually uses them, I’m not sure his doctrines ends up saying much of anything.

VIVIAN: Briefly, then, they are these. Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is-not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress. Sometimes it returns upon its footsteps, and revives some antique form, as happened in the archaistic movement of late Greek Art, and in the pre-Raphaelite movement of our own day. At other times it entirely anticipates its age, and produces in one century work that it takes another century to understand, to appreciate and to enjoy. In no case does it reproduce its age. To pass from the art of a time to the time itself is the great mistake that all historians commit.

The second doctrine is this. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us. It is, to have the pleasure of quoting myself, exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so suitable a motive for a tragedy. Besides, it is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.

The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This 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 realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.

It follows, as a corollary from this, that external Nature also imitates Art. The only effects that she can show us are effects that we have already seen througb poetry, or in paintings. This is the secret of Nature’s charm, as well as the explanation of Nature’s weakness.

The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. But of this I think I have spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where “droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,” while the evening star “washes the dusk with silver.” 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. Come! We have talked long enough.

The small Wittgenstein-inspired point I want to make is this: the verbs Vivian uses–express, translate, imitate–are usually used to describe relationships between various linguistic, or at least intentional, acts; for Vivian’s purposes, however, they cannot mean what they usually mean, and it’s unclear to me what he wants them to mean instead.

This is easiest to see with “express itself.” Usually we understand “express” along the lines of “reveal something about”: if X expresses Y, then we know something about Y after seeing X. That art expresses only art, then, would mean that art tells us nothing about anything other than art—as opposed, say, to expressing its historical context. And indeed, the idea that one could “pass from the art of a time to the time itself” Vivian calls “the great mistake that all historians commit.” But for something to express  one thing as opposed to another requires that both belong to the same category, and be able to exchange places with one another. I can express my anger because I can also express my joy, and when I do one, part of what I am doing is not doing the other. Vivian sees art not as part of the world, but as a world of quasi-Platonic forms hovering about it. When he says art can only express itself, he means that there’s nothing else it could express even if theory; the apparent alternatives, “life” and “nature” and “history,” are not the sort of things that can be expressed, by anything. This makes it hard to see what art’s self-expression amounts to; what does art express when it expresses itself? The best I can do is to draw an analogy with Thomas Aquinas’ thought that God “is his own existence”: art expresses its own self-expression.

We can say something similar about “imitate,” which seems to function here as the flip-side of “express itself.” Usually, X imitates Y by displaying certain features that resemble the features of Y, and this requires that X and Y have features of the same kind. I imitate your anger by adopting a facial expression that resembles your facial expression, by saying things that resemble the things you say, and so on. Or I imitate a panther by getting down on all fours and crawling around in the way I imagine a panther does. But how could I imitate the sun? Or imitate the number 3? It’s difficult to see where I would even begin; the features I can display are not of the right sort. Whatever I did in response to such a prompt would have more to do with me than the thing I was supposedly imitating. For Vivian art is closer to the sun or the number 3 than to a person or a panther. Were life to attempt an imitation of art, it would have nothing to go on. And Indeed Vivian subtly implies this, when he says that art has a “desire” to express itself through forms borrowed from art, but never says that life can succeed at doing so. I can only imagine that it would  end up, well, imitating its own act of imitating. This bears a certain resemblance to art expressing its own self-expression, but it’s not an imitation in the usual sense; rather than life displaying a feature that resembles a feature of art, life has an ontological structure modeled on the ontological structure of art. There is no commerce between them.

Except Vivian claims there is commerce; he claims art can translate the stuff of life into artistic conventions. But what can “translate” mean here? Normally, when X translates Y, this means that X takes something Y has done within a certain set of conventions, and transforms it according to well-established rules into a different set of conventions. It assumes reciprocity. If you say something in Swedish, I can use English words to say that same thing, and you can translate it back into Swedish. But for Vivian the art-life relationship is asymmetrical. Life has no conventions, it has only its desire for conventions. Art takes this desire for conventions, and translates it into conventions. What set of rules could make this possible? “Translate X into Y” here seems to mean something more like “transform X into Y,” or “abstract Y from X,” or even “invent Y while inspired by X.” So Vivian in fact seems to be saying something along the lines of: art has its material basis in life, while life takes its ontological form from art.

We must draw such a conclusion, at least, if we assume that we can derive a coherent metaphysics of art from what Vivian says. But I don’t know that we can. The linguistic metaphor seems so deeply embedded that I’m not sure anything is left once we dig it out. And if art and life are like two different persons speaking two different languages, they simply cannot be asymmetrical in the way Vivian seems to require.

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