It has been widely argued that there is no moral component in art, that the artist has no responsibility to maintain a source of ethics within their art – the foundation for all art, as stated in the Aesthetic Movement, is to simply be art. “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors,” (Wilde, 4), however, it is through this idea itself, the fact that the art is reflective of the spectator, that an artist must be willing to be held accountable for the consequences of their art. Within this, a sense of duality is created as evident through Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the use of duplicity in character and setting as unintentional subtle “reflections” of the “spectators” of the Victorian era.
Wilde himself is a patron of Aestheticism, an ideology that promotes the assertion that art in all forms is created simply for its beauty – the artist who creates art with a moral agenda is unpardonable, as is the criticism of art for being corruptive or immoral. The principle of “art for art’s sake” is developed throughout Wilde’s novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” as seen in the pursuit of Hedonism and the Hellenic ideal, in which the protagonist, Dorian Gray, seeks to live through beauty and youth without being held accountable for the sins of this pursuit. Under the lens of an Aesthetic, Wilde appears to have fulfilled the ideal of living within beauty and pleasure – life as art – yet, at the time, the novel was condemned for the controversy of doing so. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances, ” (Wilde, 25), and, as such, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was belittled by the interpretations, the “reflections,” of the text, as opposed to the tragic beauty as intended by Wilde – individuals often judge based on that which does not appear as a result of the “reflections” they see within the art. The idea that Wilde’s novel is morally afflicted, in spite of the fact that it was written without regard to ethics, resulted from the duality present in human nature, and as a result, all art.
The concept of duality is first presented through the protagonist, Dorian Gray. Influenced by Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian becomes suddenly aware of his waning beauty. He is convicted in the belief that his youth and beauty are the most important things in his life, and subsequently trades his soul for eternal youth while the portrait ages. The supremecy of beauty in the remainder of Dorian’s life acts as a guise to the sin committed when living a life only in interest of beauty and art – his soul, the effects of his sin, are exposed through his portrait. In this regard, Dorian is living a double life that appears to go against the Aesthetic idea that art is neither moral nor immoral – the portrait should not “bleed” as it did when Dorian killed Basil, the consequences of sin engraving itself in the strokes of the painting as opposed to appearing on an aging Dorian. While Dorian escapes external and societal consequence due to the fact that he is eternally youthful and beautiful, the impacts of sin cannot escape the mind, or the conscience – “It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the greatest sins of the world take place also.” (Wilde, 21) In this manner the ideas of aestheticism are maintained through duality – moral degredation should be accompanied by physical degredation, though Dorian attempted to conceal the physical aspect within art. However, since art has no moral standings, Dorian is burdened with his beauty through the internal liability of living accordingly – he is reflected through art, and his conscience ultimately is impacted by it.
The fact that Dorian was allowed to live through beauty, committing a life of sin, is in itself is a duality. Victorian England adhered to rigorous moral conduct, and yet his beauty and social status allowed for Dorian to live a corruptive life (“It is only shallow people who judge by appearances”), hence, indicating a sense of duality within Victorian society. In this manner, a sense of morality is derived in the “reflections.” Within the duality of the Victorian Era presented through “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the ethics of society are brought into question – the ability for an individual such as Dorian to literally get away with murder simply because he is beautiful in a society that supposedly shuns sin is reflective of the paradoxical truth of the time period in which Wilde lived. Perhaps it is for this reason that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was so ill received by the critics of at the time of its publishing – while art is not created with any ethos, it is through the unforgiving “reflection” of the “spectators” within the art that determines its social morality.
Therefore, while the intention of art, as stated by Wilde, is to be “useless,” the duality present in art develops an accountability on behalf the artist to their viewers. It is through said duplicity that art acts an allegory to one’s self, and in this regard can be both, though not intentionally, ethically empowering and aesthetically pleasing.