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The (Not So) Decadent Life of Dorian Gray: An Aesthetic Analysis

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Shannon Wong

on 10 January 2013

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Transcript of The (Not So) Decadent Life of Dorian Gray: An Aesthetic Analysis

AESTHETICISM Nuit Blanche: Why do we feel the need to place meaning and purpose upon art?

Why does art have to teach us a lesson?

Why can't art just be made to be beautiful? Aestheticism Movement: Arose in late 19th century in England during the Victorian Era.
Developments in science, politics, economics, and culture - Industrial Revolution.
Victorian Era - orthodoxy, conservatism, and repression.
People mocked bourgeois values - oppressive on freedom of expression. Philosophy of Aestheticism: Beauty and pleasure took precedence over moral issues.
"Art for art's sake".

Not only confined to art, applicable to life:
Aesthetes advocate hedonism.
Behaviours/actions that optimize beauty and pleasure; indifference to practical matters.
Perfect life = art. in The Picture of Dorian Gray By Oscar Wilde Oscar Wilde: Major proponent of aesthetic philosophy.
Only novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Shortcomings of protagonist reflect aesthetic philosophies: self-acceptance, pursuit of pleasure, attitude towards art. 1 Basil Hallward paints a portrait of Dorian Gray.
Young and handsome.
Innocent of beauty and world. 2 Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton.
Opens his eyes to his beauty.
Gives him yellow book introducing him to hedonism & aestheticism. 3 Dorian wishes that the portrait would bear the burden of age, leaving his own body eternally young & beautiful. 4 Wish is granted!
Pursuit of pleasure without a care for morals.
Falls in love with young actress Sibyl Vane, later breaking his engagement to her - she commits suicide.
Portrait looks more sinister - reflection of soul. 5 Dorian lacks conscience.
Finds joy in sinful/pleasurable deeds.
Doesn't lose beauty or youth, only painting grows old and ugly.
He runs into Basil.
Asks to see portrait, horrified at disfiguration.
Dorian murders him. 6 Dorian: anxious and scared that someone will discover his secret.
Decides that he will be good.
Must destroy the portrait.
Stabs it, Dorian later found dead with knife in his heart.
Body is hideous, portrait returned to original beauty. What causes Dorian to become an increasingly horrible person? Thesis: One’s failure to embody the ideals of aesthetic philosophy will lead to the demise of one’s soul. These 4 main principles in the aesthetic playbook that would have allowed him to live a happy life without sacrificing purity of his soul. 1. Thou shalt not.... refuse to accept your entire self. a. Wish for portrait to age & reflect his sins instead of his own body - separation of body from soul.
Attractive exterior conceals moral decay - doesn't recognize deterioration of his own soul. b. Portrait starts to bear physical burden of his sins - separate entity instead of reflection of character.
Behaves carelessly & decadently.
Overwhelming morality - conscience resides in painting. c. Horrific transformation of painting - complete destruction of soul.
Realizes aesthetic principle: body and soul should be inseparable.
Too late to be forgiven for sins, tries to destroy painting to silence soul forever - ultimate denial of oneself.
Aesthetic lesson: handsomeness does not constitute beauty of the soul. 2. Thou shalt not.... use the pursuit of pleasure to escape responsibility and accountability. a. Impulse to escape unpleasant situations leads him to obsess and seek refuge in art.
Finds out about Sibyl's suicide - attends opera, studies jewels, perfumes, embroideries, "means of forgetfulness".
Refuses to recognize that he caused it.
Forces himself to view life from purely aesthetic perspective, becomes observer of his own life - detached emotionally.
Values materialistic things over respectable character. b. Over a decade later, hideousness of portrait reflects extent of sins.
Refuses to admit to murdering Basil: "The secret of the whole thing is not to realize the situation"
Pursues pleasurable things like literature, clothing, and food to bury his sins.
Aesthetic pleasures + emotional detachment: Dorian doesn't hold himself accountable for his actions.
Portrait reflects demise of soul. 3. Thou shalt not.... find pleasure in the corruption of your own soul. Dorian falls in love with his own beauty and becomes increasingly interested in the corruption of his soul.
Commits many sins - objectifying women, brawling with strangers, teaming up with thieves.
Even though he's committing all these sins, only the painting suffers any repercussions.
As he finds pleasure in his own corruption, his soul becomes tarnished as shown in the portrait. 4. Thou shalt not.... give art a purpose other than to be beautiful. a. Dorian falls in love with beautiful actress, Sibyl.
Art of performance now has purpose of maintaining his love for her.
When she decides to leave the stage, Dorian dumps her cruelly: "Without your art you are nothing!"
Portrait becomes more sinister looking. b. Decides to live life by the yellow book.
Greatly immoral, endorses extremely aesthetic lifestyle - no regard for morality.
Forgoes warning that art's purpose is never to teach a moral lesson: "Art should have no influence upon action"
Succumbs to its influence, living his life decadently - soul decays as a result. c. Wishes that his portrait will shoulder physical burden of sins.
Witnesses repulsive transformation, esp. after death of Sibyl and Basil.
Destroys painting and himself.
If he hadn't imposed a purpose on the painting, maybe his soul wouldn't have deteriorated so quickly. So What? Aestheticism: concept of beauty.

Dorian Gray offers his soul in return for eternal beauty. Many people sacrifice happiness, health, or their lives in pursuit of external beauty.

Beauty is much more than just outside appearances - reflection of soul.

This aesthetic lesson resonates with society - bombarded with media giving the message that we are not beautiful.
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