By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
“All art is quite useless”. This was Oscar Wilde’s conclusion at the end of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Art constitutes the act of creating something, however trivial it may be. Random doodles sketched at the back of class-registers, origami cranes, muddled attempts at the potter’s wheel, a song sung well, a play beautifully enacted, a diary-entry filled with impassioned paragraphs… Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Monet’s Water Lilies, Munch’s The Scream; or perhaps Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; a performance of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, or Beckett’s Endgame; Chopin and Debussy and Coldplay’s music.
All these acts of creation trigger a powerful surge of feelings in the creator as well as the spectator. Sketching, painting, writing, and singing have always been therapeutic for me. The colours that I splay out on an empty sheet of paper, the words that I formulate on a blank Word document – things that didn’t exist in that particular format ever before; it all generates a sense of fulfilment unrivalled by anything else. Richard Taylor compared the absurdity of man’s life, of his existence, to the condition of Sisyphus, to the inevitable repetition of a single activity culminating into nothing. The absurdity of life is not reduced if the task that you carry out is less burdensome and does not take a toll on your body. The mere accumulation of those easy yet meaningless tasks does not contribute any sense of purpose to life. For Taylor, then, meaning can only be acquired through a creative act – when you bring about something into existence, manufacture something unique, something you.
The act of creation then is a way to imprint yourself into the collective consciousness of the world, a way of saying, “Look, I was here.” In this way, art helps transcend mortality – the tick-tock of your life. Art overwhelms and inspires, perpetuating a process where one work of art creates another. Yet, what is art? Does it hope to achieve something? Is it just a medium of self-expression which longs to preserve its creator in the pages of history? Or does it seek to change society, forming an integral part of its culture, critiquing it, subverting it, and healing it?
Going back to Wilde’s statement about the desired uselessness of art, we need to contextualize it in the Aesthetic Movement of the latter half of the 19th century. Kant was one of the first few to speak about the autonomy of art. “Art for art’s sake”. Aestheticism believed that art should not concern itself with didactic purposes, with a higher motive of elevating the individual morally and spiritually. Art had to exist for itself, be beautiful for itself. Wilde took this forward by claiming that the artist’s life, more important than anything that he produces, is essentially his supreme work. However, with the corruption of Dorian Grey, Wilde does posit a cautionary tale about a hedonistic way of living, arguing then for a balance to be achieved, away from the immorality that this Aesthetic culture inevitably brings along with it.
So, there is indeed a muddling up of ethics and aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The art-work does serve as a mirror to Dorian’s soul, binding life and art inextricably. The ‘uselessness’ of art is in this manner nullified to a great extent. Art, for Dorian, is not a redemptive space. It creates a reflection of him, and then distorts it, securing his life-strings to the canvas.
Thus, Aestheticism’s belief about positing art’s beauty in a vacuum becomes problematic. Beauty impacts the individual; it instigates the creation of art. Art, in turn, instigates more art by allowing you to momentarily get a taste of what is beyond the normal, to get a glimpse into another person’s life, into a realm of fantasy. This motivating aesthetic appeal can be found anywhere – dust, sugar, cotton, wood, tubes, wires. Beauty is rediscovered through things as ordinary as fishing-nets (Janet Echelman’s works), providing another perspective to the world around you, adding another mystical element to the usual energy of things. What may then have seemed commonplace and mundane is given a new perspective when seen through the lens of the artist.
Thus, art captures the invisible, making your eye stop at a sensory delicacy which it never acknowledged as being worthy of attention before; beautifying and giving meaning to little things existing in the universe. You may come from different contexts, perceiving and interpreting a work from your own viewpoint depending on your history. However, at the end, art becomes instrumental in instilling this raw energy into you, tying your internals into nervous cluttered bundles, making you feel the desire to understand more, to create more, to express more.
Harleen is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English Literature at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at [email protected].