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The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde
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What is the meaning of the following epigram from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician"?

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Wilde's statement about music is typical of the nineteenth-century attitude that identifies music as having a special quality raising it above the other arts. Even if Wilde was not directly influenced by his philosophy, the thinking of Schopenhauer and other German philosophers and writers was in the air, a fundamental...

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Wilde's statement about music is typical of the nineteenth-century attitude that identifies music as having a special quality raising it above the other arts. Even if Wilde was not directly influenced by his philosophy, the thinking of Schopenhauer and other German philosophers and writers was in the air, a fundamental element of the Zeitgeist. Music, in their views, expresses emotion directly rather than simply copying the outward forms of things as literature and painting do. In music there is no intermediary between the artist's expression and the means by which those emotions are expressed.

This may not be the exact meaning of Wilde's statement that "the type of all the arts is the art of the musician," but his valuation of music derives from this philosophical exalting of music as a superior form of expression. The "type" of all the arts, as Wilde employs the term, means the model, or the purest incarnation, on which all the others are based. Yet, in this connection he is talking about "form." On the other hand, when he refers to "feeling," Wilde says "the artist's craft is the type."

This distinction is somewhat puzzling. Wilde's statements in the Dorian Gray preface are deliberately cryptic. He seeks to tease the reader with a charmingly insolent series of epigrams about the meaning of art. After all this he concludes with the famous judgment that all art is useless. He doesn't literally mean this, except in the sense that he, like most artists since the start of the Romantic period, is divorcing art from moral and didactic considerations. This is why he asserts that no artist has "ethical sympathies," and that the artist "can express anything." Given that music has no literal meaning beyond that of pure sound, it's thus the ideal art for a man who believes that "messages," moral or otherwise, are irrelevant to his conception of art.

Interestingly enough, in the novel that follows this preface, there are few references to music. Classical music at that time, even in the later nineteenth century, was not central to the English-speaking culture in the way it was to the Germans and Italians, for instance. But Wilde is alluding to music generically. As stated, his view was typical of an age in which many writers and philosophers were redefining and rejecting the traditional views on the arts and aesthetics that many people within the conservative establishment expected them to continue believing.

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