One of the most important concepts underlying Oscar Wilde’s work is summarized in an epigram from his short piece, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1894). He writes, “In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential” (Wilde 739). No matter what the circumstance is, it is not what is expressed that is important, but how one expresses it.
Wilde’s belief in the superiority of form over content is due to a complex theory of life and art that can be divided into three parts. First, art is superior to life, which is often vulgar in its seemingly haphazard sequences of events and the coarse behavior of those who inhabit it. Art transforms these common elements into a representation of life that approximates events without their roughness, and adds an element of intrigue. The true work of art never simply imitates life and thus is never obvious, always inviting the viewer to draw his or her own interpretations. Second, Wilde diminishes the value of sincerity because, in its frankness, it comes close to perpetuating the blatant, unromantic obviousness of reality that he finds so grotesque. The insincere more closely resembles art because true art itself is insincere, at least in the sense that it does not seek to accurately re-create life but rather to transform it into something greater than itself. Finally, since the sincerity of the content of a phrase or work of art is irrelevant to its artistic effect, the only remaining feature that can be of any consequence is the style itself. A work of true art, regardless of its truthfulness to life as it really is, appears infinitely more beautiful than a work that merely mimics the vulgar commonness of reality without striving to add anything of its own stylistically. Wilde’s argument is clear both in the actual structure of the epigram and throughout the course of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).
The structure of the epigram defies expectations, and thus initially is problematic for the reader. It is composed of two sentences that have a parallel structure, with just one word that is changed. Generally, when two parallel sentences are placed next to each other, the purpose is to connect them through their stylistic similarity and yet emphasize their difference through their content. When the reader first encounters Wilde’s epigram in “Phrases and Philosophies for the Young,” he or she expects the second half of the second sentence to differ in content from the second half of the first, thus illuminating a key contrast in meaning between the two. However, both sentences end with the exact same conclusion, that style and not sincerity is the essential. The difference of one word in the first part of each sentence, initially viewed simply as the precondition that would entail the more important difference illuminated in the second part, actually becomes re-defined as the only contrast between the two sentences. This therefore draws attention to the difference between “important” and “unimportant” matters, and emphasizes that in both cases, meaning in every case, style is more important than sincerity. Wilde has imposed parallel structure onto what could have easily become a conventional, one-sentence generalization: “In all matters, style is the essential.” In choosing to instead use parallel structure, Wilde highlights the punch line of his epigram, startling the reader into a keen awareness that the importance of style is a universal truth. Additionally, this self-conscious use of a stylistic device to make the meaning of the epigram more powerful is a meta-textual example of Wilde’s philosophy at work. The meaning alone of the epigram, though unusual, would perhaps have been considered trivial by readers if written more conventionally—it is the method in which the epigram’s style draws out and emphasizes its point that makes it innovative and unforgettable.
The grounding principle upon which the argument of Wilde’s epigram is based, as illustrated throughout Picture of Dorian Gray, is that art is in all cases superior to life. Art removies all the vulgarity of l ife, and in fact adds an enigmatic quality to whatever it depicts that makes it more beautiful than the object in real life that is depicted. This difference between the two entities is established in the initial scenes of the novel, in Basil Hallward’s garden. First, Basil is upset that he has painted too much of himself into his beautiful portrait of Dorian Gray. He insists to Lord Henry, “ ‘An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty’” (Wilde 152). His wistful tone and lament over the loss of abstract beauty express his disappointment that art has become a form of autobiography. This kind of documentation is not art, because it only seeks to replicate life in the same way that an average person’s diary or journal might. The creations of an artist must be detached from him and his life, in order to avoid becoming mere copies. Basil’s need for “abstract beauty” reflects his desire that art transcend ordinary life, adding enigmatic elements to its representation that require interpretation on the viewer’s part. Soon after Basil states his reservations about his portrait, Dorian Gray offhandedly expresses aloud the desire that he could remain young while his portrait ages (168). Somehow, his wish is granted, although how this occurs is never thoroughly explained. One possibility is that in painting too much of reality into the work of art, Basil has predisposed the picture to becoming reality itself. Indeed, the roles of art and life are switched in Dorian and his portrait. While the second shows all of the signs of growing age and ugliness that represent life’s crudeness, Dorian remains forever young and blooming.
Later, Dorian falls in love with an actress named Sibyl Vane, but after he observes her acting terribly in a play one night, he realizes that it is for her art alone, and not her person, that he loves her. He exclaims, “I loved you…because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art… Without your art you are nothing” (236-237). Dorian was passionate about Sibyl because in her brilliant acting, she created a wonderful art that elevated him from the impoverished setting of the greasy theater to a world of beauty and rapture. In essence, Dorian had not fallen in love with her, but with the lovely art her acting created, which recast the coarse elements of ordinary life represented by the audience members and dingy theater in a splendid light. Once her acting skill leaves her, so does the one characteristic that made her sublime. She becomes a member of the commonplace audience that at one time she was able to transport to a higher plane, and therefore someone of no consequence to bitter, disappointed Dorian. Once she has lost his love, Sibyl throws herself at Dorian’s feet and engages in a fit of tears that he views as base and pathetic. “Sibyl Vane seemed to him to be absurdly melodramatic. Her tears and sobs annoyed him” (238). The curt sentences of his thoughts indicate his utter contempt and disdain for her in this state of raw human emotion. He is disgusted with anything resembling the vileness of common, ordinary expression, and thus loses interest in Sibyl once she has fallen from the status of an art object to a mere groveling human being. He feels little remorse when he learns of her suicide. In fact, he remarks with some alarm that he rather enjoys it, as it has the charm of a Greek tragedy (252). Lord Henry’s reply explicitly identifies the relationship Wilde believes to exist between life and art. “ It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us…Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives…suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play…we watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthralls us” (252). He summarizes everything present in life that makes it base and inferior to art. However, in the second half of his musing, he explains that occasionally an event occurs that actually has the beauty and intrigue to rise above commonness—Sibyl’s romantic suicide is one such example. Lord Henry explicitly links such events to a play in which the actors for the moment become self-reflexive spectators. Alternatively, Dorian compares Sibyl’s death to the art of Greek tragedy. In the rare moments that life is beautiful, it resembles or perhaps even becomes art, just as Dorian himself has become art in switching roles with his picture. For this reason, it is important to live life with style, to consciously attempt to make it beautiful and thus more art-like. There is no event in ordinary life that is beautiful and not artful, just as there is no true art that is beautiful and simply a mere “autobiography,” or literal representation of what it seeks to depict.
The value of insincerity detailed in the epigram makes sense in the context of the distinction between life and art in Wilde’s literature. If true art should not be a mere imitation of the reality it attempts to depict, it follows that, in a sense, true art is not sincere. That is, it does not honestly portray exactly the events that it chooses to mimic. Rather, it adds elements that elevate these events and objects to a more enigmatic and beautiful plane, making them superior to what they actually are. In this sense, true art is insincere. This condemnation of sincerity is at first evident in several remarks made in Basil’s garden at the beginning of the novel. Lord Henry laughs, “Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” as he walks into the garden (144). Almost right after he is introduced, Lord Henry questions the value of acting naturally, or in other words, sincerely. In fact, he actually refers to acting naturally as a “pose,” suggesting that there is no way of truly being sincere. Even the most honest individual makes a concerted effort to be so, and thus is posing. Lord Henry finds this particular pose incredibly annoying, probably because it pretends to be honest but is in fact just as contrived as any other form of acting. Nobody, at least in Lord Henry’s view, is actually capable of truly being sincere, acting without any sort of pre-conceived notion of how he or she wants to behave and be viewed in the eyes of society. Questioning the existence of true sincerity diminishes its importance, and suggests that it is not as necessary as some moralists might believe.
Later in the same conversation, Lord Henry remarks, “
…the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be colored by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices” (149). After having previously minimized the importance of sincerity, Lord Henry has proceeded to connect this idea with its significance to intellectual pursuit. More than simply believing ideas exist independently of the sincerity or insincerity of those who originate them, Lord Henry emphasizes that if anything, it is probably better for the idea to be spoken by an insincere person rather than a sincere one. This is because insincere people are emotionally and personally detached from the ideas of which they speak. The concept of ‘idea’ is broad, encompassing the entire range of intellectual activities, including the production of true art. The more that elements of ordinary life, such as emotion and personal bias, are detached from a work, the more like true art this work becomes. In his statement, therefore, Lord Henry expresses the idea that art is better the more insincere it is, because it is more removed from the crude feelings and attitudes that characterize the mediocrity of reality.
A possible argument could be raised relating to Dorian’s death at the end of the novel, which, in a moralistic reading of the text, is seen as just punishment for the crimes he has committed. Such a reading would cast Dorian’s insincere, yet highly stylized life in a negative light. However, upon closer examination of the text, it is not so clear that it is Dorian’s insincerity that is punished. In destroying the painting, Dorian succeeds only in switching himself and the picture again, so that, as is conventional, the former represents reality and the latter art. In doing so, he kills himself, but the painting is as lovely and unmarred as though freshly painted. “When they [the servants] entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man…withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (391). In a moralistic tale, it would make more sense for both the picture and Dorian to be killed at the end of the novel, because as Dorian represents sin, his picture also represents a kind of indulgent self-obsession that would be repulsive to moralist sensibilities. In such a version of the tale, the portrait, though reverted to its original form, would be found with a huge slash through it from Dorian’s dagger, killed along with the man himself. However, something quite different has occurred. Contrary to proving that Dorian has died as a repercussion of the gross insincerity of his character, his death actually demonstrates the third and most important part of Wilde’s philosophy, that style is always the essential. Dorian wanted to destroy the reality depicted within his painting because it was not art-like. However, in order to truly destroy this reality, he had to kill himself, since he was the reality the picture was portraying. In order for this to occur, the roles of the art-Dorian and real-Dorian switched back to the way they had originally been, when the painting was first finished, and the shell of the body that has been caught up in this strange relationship between man and painting is found with a dagger through its heart. Meanwhile, the portrait is alive and well, as lovely and unscratched as it was when first painted. It seems as though the power of art has actually overcome and killed inferior, commonplace reality. Moreover, this figurative battle between life and art is acted out between a portrait and a man in a way that is poetic, dramatic, thoroughly fantastical, and, in short, extremely stylized. The effort to stylize life in order to make it more artful has in fact killed it, and left victorious art behind in the form of the unblemished portrait. The restored painting commemorates the face of not just the innocent Dorian of the beginning of the novel, but the corrupt, cruel Dorian that is present through the majority of the work. It must be remembered that in committing his various misdeeds, Dorian was not a human of common reality, but rather a work of art, now immortalized in the picture after the vulgar characteristics of reality he has managed to detach from himself are killed. Thus, the picture’s survival actually ensures that the man who committed acts of such stylistic insincerity will not be forgotten, but rather will live on in the realm of art, where he properly belongs. The painting in essence offers homage to a man who lived the principle of making his life as stylized as possible. This is the only true virtue, since in living and dying with style one at least attempts to make his or her life somewhat more artful and less vulgar.
When Wilde writes, “In matters of unimportance, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In matters of importance, style, not sincerity, is the essential,” he imparts an important philosophy of art that is crucial to understanding Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel is a defense of the idea that true art should be insincere, not a mere replication of life but rather a reworking of it into a purer, more sublime form. The sincerity of the work is not nearly as important as the style with which the piece of art carries out its portrayal of reality. The more stylized a work of art is, the more detached it is from the reality it seeks to depict, and the more like true art it becomes. A stylized autobiography is often less directly imitative of life than one written in a straightforward manner, but this makes it more like true art. The artful Dorian Gray carried out his sins with style, and is rewarded by being eternalized in a picture that effectively kills the reality that Basil accidentally placed into his brush strokes when he painted the portrait at the beginning of the novel. Lord Henry cries, near the end of Dorian’s life, “What a blessing that there is one art left to us that is not imitative!” in reference to music (383). Music is the least able to be simply a mere replica of the life it tries to represent, purely because by its very nature it is more abstract. It cannot mimic life the way that a portrait or, less so, a series of words can. It is perhaps for this reason that the novel is entitled Picture of Dorian Gray rather than Song of Dorian Gray or Poem of Dorian Gray. Wilde understood that pictorial art was the genre that most easily fell into the trap of sincerely imitating life, without adding any stylistic elements of its own, and thus this was the form of art addressed in his novel. His work is an outcry for art to return to its former days of glory, to rise out of the muck of simply imitating what happens in life for the purpose of creating something more sublime. This is an ideal that Wilde tried to live up to in his own works, never allowing into them any of the soiled drudgery of an autobiographical account of his infamous life as a man put on trial and exiled for homosexuality. His work remains thoroughly detached from his personal life, and furthermore, is known for its original stylistic qualities. Thus, Wilde lived out the philosophy of his epigram in his work.
Wilde, Oscar. The Portable Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Aldington and Stanley Weintraub. New
York, New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1981. Print.
Wilde elsewhere explicitly states his belief in the value of insincerity and style to life and art, as well as the superiority of the latter over the former. See his essay “The Critic as Artist” (Several of the particularly pertinent aspects of his argument can be found in passages on the following pages:70-72, 75-76, 82, 85, 96, 101-111, 114, 115-116, 118, 125, and 136)