Selections from Oscar Wilde’s “Decay of Lying” have been a recent feature in aesthetics textbooks. This may be largely because his claim that “the whole of Japan is a pure invention” seems very much like a postmodernist statement. Much of what Wilde says (or rather, has his character Vivian say….it is just easier to write as though Vivian’s statements usually represent Wilde himself) in these selections is exaggerated and not of much use in contemporary contexts. Take for example his claim that “Art never expresses anything but itself” (F44). Who now would hold to this view? However the paragraph that follows makes clear that for Wilde art often seems out of touch with its times, either by returning to an earlier age or by anticipating a new one. If “the spirit of the times” is taken to include these moves then this point at least should be right. I am inclined to agree when he says that “in no case does [Art] reproduce its age” for the simple reason that art is seldom meant just to reproduce, and it is not clear how one could reproduce something as complex as an age. Also, as before, this all depends on how one delimits an age: if an age includes its own memories and anticipations, then the more Hegelian claim that art expresses the spirit of the age can still be true.
More problematic is the claim that “all bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature and elevating them to ideals.” (F44) Such universal claims hardly ever work. Again, the paragraph that follows this sentence moderates the original extreme thesis. His view comes down to the ideas that art must use Life and Nature as raw materials and that it should not surrender its imaginative nature, neither of which is objectionable. On the negative side, Wilde's claim that “every artist should avoid…modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter” would seem to have already been refuted in his own time by Monet’s Gare St. Lazare.
Wilde’s most interesting claim, of course, is that “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life.” Once again, this is an exaggeration. As many of my students have observed, it would be better to say that they equally imitate each other. The idea that “the aim of Life is to find expression” is hard to countenance, as it is hard to assume that life has any one aim, although if this were true, and this were the aim, then art would be a good way to, as he puts it, “realize this energy.”
I like the idea that “the wonderful brown fogs” of London are due to the Impressionists. Wilde is saying that the things of everyday life, as having aesthetic qualities, did not exist until those qualities were expressed by artists. When he says that nature is “our creation” what he means is that nature insofar as she is experienced aesthetically (quickened to life) is our creation. When he says that “one does not see anything until one sees its beauty” he means that there are two kinds of seeing, one associated with practical concerns, but another having to do with things seen as essentially alive and vibrant. Thus, for Wilde, something only comes into existence when it is seen in this way. This is not to say that the thing did not exist prior to being perceived in the more conventional sense of "exist." This position raises a serious challenge to someone like Allen Carlson who believes that nature ought not to be appreciated in terms of art. Carlson specifically rejects what he calls the Landscape or Scenery Model (LSM), perceiving nature as if it were a landscape painting. Wilde is saying that perceiving nature in this way is inevitable. If this is true then Carlson's recommendation could not even be carried out.
Oscar Wilde. "The New Aesthetics" in Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard. Aesthetics. (Oxford University Press, 1997) from "The Decay of Lying" Intentions (New York: The Notingham Society, 1909) and originally published in 1891. There is a web version at http://www.usp.nus.edu.sg/victorian/authors/wilde/decay.html