Reflecting the Critic

The following is my observation on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray which came to me when I read Wilde’s preface to the book. In that preface he dealt with the idea of the critic being responsible for finding beauty in art since successful art will really be a reflection of the critic rather than the artist. I don’t know wether Wilde intended the preface to have a direct connection to the story – it may be that he was just addressing the initial negative reception to the book – but nevertheless, I found his preface to have a striking parallel with the story.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is not just about the story of a Faustian deal with the devil, everlasting youth, and the repercussions of an unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, it is also a metaphor for our judgement of art. The judgement we pass on art is wholly dependent on the critic – it cannot be otherwise for it is completely based on their own experiences, knowledge and taste. Seeing beauty in art is a reflection of the beauty in your own soul, just as finding fault and ugliness. The young Gray that first looks upon his portrait sees no blemish, for there is none yet to be found. As he spirals down on his path of immorality – or perhaps amorality – his judgement of the painting changes. Since he is the only one of two people who get to look at the painting after its transformation it is not even certain that the painting changes at all, but his perception of its beauty certainly does.

What changes really is the subject of the painting – who is at once the critic – and so Gray’s evaluation of it also shifts. What was once innocent and beautiful is now ugly and repulsive because it is on the basis of that perspective – that is, the judgement of Gray’s moral status – that the new appraisal is made. In this way Gray actually displays the presence of a moral sense since he is able to see all his faults reflected back at him. In just the same way, Basil, who created the painting, can no longer see the beauty of the original because the subject bears a dreadful taint of immorality. The critic now views the painting from a new vantage point from which all traces of its former beauty are veiled in shadow.

March 2012