Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorien Gray was first published in 1890 and received dreadful reviews. Why? The behavior of the protagonist was, of course, indecent. That was the point of the story and this annoyed Victorians who valued propriety. Worse still, as Gray descends into more and more indecent behavior, the likeliness of him in a painting grows more and more debased. The appearance of beauty in the real world masks a dark inner ugliness. Art may empower Gray, but it also tells the truth, even when reality seems superficially seductive. Gray must hide that truth, which of course, he does, until his obligatory demise. Beautiful reality, ugly art.
Of course, things took a turn that few expected in the 20th century. Reality became distincly less seductive. And a writer like Tolkien sought to escape the coercive ugliness around him. He is best known for doing so in fantasy novels like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But his most introspective story is “Leaf by Niggle” written in 1938 amd first published in 1945. Niggle lives in an ugly world and he tries to escape that ugliness by secretly devoting himself to painting a beautiful forest, leaf by leaf. Each leaf deserves intense detail. Eventually, Niggle finds himself released into a perfected real version of that forest in another far off land. The heroic act of trying to create perfect art releases the spirit to a higher plain. Ugly reality, beautiful art.
I am fascinated by the contrast – beautiful reality, and ugly art. Ugly reality, beautiful art. And in each case, one seeks to escape constraints through art. Gray seeks to escape the constraints of growing old. Niggle seeks to escape the actual constraints of imposed drudgery. In each case, art provides the channel for escape.
And so is this notion of escape from real constraints a key component of the artisitc sporit? Clark posited in his Civilisation series that violent cultures often produce beautiful art. And Shaw posited in Man and Superman that beauty without tension is boring. Hevaen is an endless tea party where nothing happens. Hell is where the fun is!
Perhaps there is no real point of creating images of reality in art when reality itself is satisfying. A constraint must appear and art provide the means of escaping it. Fortunately, perhaps, reality always imposes constraints and so art gains its power over us!
What do you think?