Because Life Imitates Art, the Fiction Writer Should Invent Beautiful Lies, Part 2

The idea that life imitates art isn’t so surprising, right? Among other things, that’s the idea behind the studies showing that children become more violent after watching violence on television.

Oscar Wilde, in an essay published in 1905, claims that life imitates art more than art imitates life. He goes even farther and claims that even nature imitates art.

What? He actually claims that nature follows the landscape painter and takes her effects from the painter?

Exactly so, says Wilde.

"A Street at Night," by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

“A Street at Night,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw.

“Where,” asks Wilde, “if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

“You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. 

"Reflections on the Thames, Westminster," by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880)

“Reflections on the Thames, Westminster,” by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1880)

“At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis.

“Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my coming to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines, to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and overemphasized.”

"Flint Castle," by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

“Flint Castle,” by J.M.W. Turner (1838)

I attended a history lecture once in Boston. The lecturer was discussing the writings of a group of monks in the middle ages who traveled over the Alps. They wrote about their journey, but never once mentioned the spectacular landscape. There they were, traveling over mountains of incredible majesty and beauty — but they didn’t seem to notice or care. Instead, they discussed philosophy and religion.

Oscar Wilde would say that the monks in the middle ages didn’t notice the spectacular landscape because the painters of the Romantic era had not yet interpreted the grand landscapes in a way that taught people to see the beauty.

 "Romantic Landscape," by John Trumbull  (1783)

“Romantic Landscape,” by John Trumbull (1783)

“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” is a cliche based on an obvious truth: Beauty is subjectively brought to the object by the person seeing it. Until artists taught people to see the beauty of a grand landscape, the beauty simply wasn’t there.

Wilde, of course, goes further and says that the landscape itself wasn’t there. While there was a physical world, it wasn’t the physical world we see today because what we see is imbued with our subjective understanding of what is there. (I’ll explore this idea more later.)

In the middle ages, when survival was a struggle, the natural world was menacing and frightening. The eighteenth century, which saw the rise in cities and the ability of humanity to become the master of nature, allowed artists to invent the spectacular landscape as a thing of beauty.

The two main points I take away from Wilde’s essay are these:

(1)  No great artist sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.

(2) The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art.

This brings me back to Ibsen’s Nora. In 1879, Ibsen invented a truly modern woman, a woman way ahead of her time. He departed from what was real, and commonplace, and dull. He told a beautiful lie. It could be said that Nora taught generations of women what they could be and could do. Or it could be said that because life is essentially imitative, the type of woman created by Ibsen has become fact.

Next week I’ll continue with a look at the ugliness in so much American fiction and consider why so much of our fiction and art lacks beauty.

 You can read Oscar Wilde’s entire essay here.


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