Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray Art and Culture

By Oscar Wilde

Art and Culture

Chapter 1
Basil Hallward

"You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages. With an evening coat and a white tie, as you told me once, anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized." (1.17)

Here, Basil self-deprecatingly admits that even artists have to give in to the demands of society at times – they (who usually inhabit their own creative worlds) have to pretend to be "civilized" on occasion.

"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." (1.21)

Basil highlights exactly what's wrong with the contemporary art scene as he sees it. He thinks that art should be about beauty, not the artist's ego.

Lord Henry Wotton

"It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done," said Lord Henry languidly. "You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place." (1.5)

Art, to Lord Henry, is simply an excuse for publicity; his flippant comment actually reveals a lot about his opinion of the artistic enterprise – he'd rather look at people looking at pictures than at pictures themselves.

Chapter 2
Dorian Gray

With a stifled sob the lad leaped from the couch, and, rushing over to Hallward, tore the knife out of his hand, and flung it to the end of the studio. "Don't, Basil, don't!" he cried. "It would be murder!" (2.32)

Dorian's view of art is an interestingly personal one – he sees the painting as part of himself, rather than as a purely aesthetic object.

Chapter 4
Lord Henry Wotton

"Basil, my dear boy, puts everything that is charming in him into his work. The consequence is that he has nothing left for life but his prejudices, his principles, and his common sense. The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize." (4.15)

Lord Henry clearly differentiates art from life – he seems to think that a person can either inhabit one or the other.

Chapter 7
Sybil Vane

"Dorian, Dorian," she cried, "before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. I was Rosalind one night and Portia the other. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also. I believed in everything. The common people who acted with me seemed to me to be godlike. The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came -- oh, my beautiful love! -- and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played. To-night, for the first time, I became conscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that the moonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar, and that the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were not what I wanted to say. You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is. My love! My love! Prince Charming! Prince of life! I have grown sick of shadows. You are more to me than all art can ever be. What have I to do with the puppets of a play?" (7.15)

With Dorian's love, Sibyl has realized that the life she lived before was not, in fact, life at all. Art had been everything to her (as it is to a certain Basil Hallward), but now that she's found love, she realizes that it's no substitute for real life experience.

"You have spoiled the romance of my life. How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art! Without your art, you are nothing. I would have made you famous, splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face." (7.18)

It becomes clear that Dorian only valued Sybil as an aesthetic object. She was, to him, a living work of art, and, now that she can't act anymore, she's lost all of her value.

Chapter 8
Dorian Gray

"Harry," cried Dorian Gray, coming over and sitting down beside him, "why is it that I cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to? I don't think I am heartless. Do you?"

"You have done too many foolish things during the last fortnight to be entitled to give yourself that name, Dorian," answered Lord Henry with his sweet melancholy smile.

The lad frowned. "I don't like that explanation, Harry," he rejoined, "but I am glad you don't think I am heartless. I am nothing of the kind. I know I am not. And yet I must admit that this thing that has happened does not affect me as it should. It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded." (8.17)

Dorian continues to view life as Sibyl used to, as a kind of theatrical spectacle – he feels no emotional connection to the work of art, merely an interest and appreciation for it.

Chapter 19
Lord Henry Wotton

"The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you. It always will worship you. You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets." (19.9)

Lord Henry's observation is an apt one – Dorian's life is indeed his art. Little does he know how true his casual comment is. And if he could see what "art" really did come of Dorian's life, would he still think it praiseworthy?

"My dear boy," said Lord Henry, smiling, "anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate."

"Culture and corruption," echoed Dorian. "I have known something of both. It seems terrible to me now that they should ever be found together." (19.2)

If "civilization" is truly what Lord Henry thinks it is, we're not sure we want it. He thinks that it springs either from "culture" or "corruption" – or from a combination of the two. The thing is, we have to wonder how separable these two things are.

Dorian Gray

"Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all." (19.10)

This idea of art simply revealing what's already wrong in the world echoes Lord Henry and Dorian's excuses for their sins – the idea that sin is latent even in the innocent person.