The Decay Of Lying "Art Never Expresses Anything But Itself"

Oscar Wilde

"Art Never Expresses Anything But Itself"

Context: To support a wife, Oscar Wilde became editor of The Woman's World, a position that kept him in funds and allowed him to indulge in his favorite sport of talking. The loss of that job drove him to the writing of magazine articles, usually résumés of his monologues. One was "The Decay of Lying," later included in Intentions (1891). In it he pleaded for imagination and the beau ideal instead of the crude and raw life of the realists. While the essay established his reputation among critics, it seemed to the average Englishman more like a cynical defense of mendacity. Its form is a Plantonic dialogue between Vivian and Cyril, in a country house in Nottinghamshire. Vivian reads his unfinished essay, while Cyril interrupts and objects. Vivian sees Art not as holding a mirror up to Nature, but as revealing Nature's imperfections and lack of design. To him, Art does not imitate Life; Life imitates Art. His arguments almost convince Cyril.

CYRIL–You have proved it to my dissatisfaction. But even admitting this strange imitative instinct in Life and Nature, surely you would acknowledge that Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence it is produced.
VIVIAN–Certainly not! Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes Music the type of all the arts. . . .