An Attempt at Understanding ‘The Artist’

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How exactly does a desire come upon an artist’s soul? The short poem in prose The Artist by Oscar Wilde suggests that it is an unconscious act—the external becomes internal, perhaps by mere chance or a stroke of luck during an inconspicuous evening. Desire immured the artist without previous notice. This also happens in Monsieur Venus after Raoule leaves the flower shop for the first time;  “The woman who vibrated within her saw nothing in Silvert but a beautiful instrument of pleasure she coveted and, in a latent state, that she already held fast in her imagination” (Rachilde 19). This unexpected desire drives Raoule to want to utilize Jacques as her bronze– to fashion images from his body, to bring about pleasure that endures for a moment. Another example of an instantaneous desire that seems to come from nowhere appears in Wilde’s Salome. Salome speaks to the prophet and a single desire comes to her mind, to kiss his mouth. Salome will even go as far as slaying him to realize her desire. In this way, Salome’s dance of the seven veils is the artistic act that fulfills her desire.  This desire is immortalized at the end of the play through John the Baptist’s death– he becomes an image of an irrational whim, of the pleasure Salome momentarily acquires from kissing him. “I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor fruits can appease my desire.” (Wilde 604) Similarly and quite literally,  the unexpected desire that went into the soul of Wilde’s artist was the desire to create an image of the The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment, and naturally the question “what is the pleasure that abideth for a moment?” arises. The Artist wants to immortalize that which arouses his fancy momentarily– he wants to transform the ephemeral into an eternal object of beauty– much like Jacques at the end of Monsieur Venus. “On the bed shaped like a seashell, guarded by an Eros of marble, rests a wax figure covered with transparent rubber skin.” (Rachilde 209) Jacques’s ephemeral beauty becomes an eternal object of admiration; Raoule as artist converts her momentary pleasure into an eternal wax image.

In Wilde’s The Artist, in order to transform the momentary into the eternal, the artist goes on to scourge for bronze, for apparently he could only think in bronze. Questions surge once more—what does it mean for an artist to only think in bronze? Why only bronze, why not clay, why not marble? The artist seems to be defined by a monotonous affinity to bronze, by both its rigidity and its molten mutability,  by a single target– a desire– that has already been struck before the artist launches his arrow. Ironically, Wilde’s artist cannot find any bronze for it had disappeared. Yet the text immediately contradicts itself and the artist finds bronze in the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever. There seems to be a distance between the artist and The Sorrow that endureth for Ever, almost as if he’d never encountered it but then the reader is told that this image had been made by the artist himself, and that he’d set it ‘on the tomb of the one thing he had loved in life.’  Salome is a more concrete example of this episode– she paradoxically shatters her eternal sorrow for momentary pleasure while simultaneously immortalizing both.  Her dance is a momentary pleasure that becomes eternal once John the Baptist is slain. As the artist looks to fashion a new image, The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment—The Sorrow that endureth for Ever  stands in the way. The bronze that the artist finds is a representation of the opposite of what he initially sought to fashion. He still holds the desire to fashion his new image, but he can only find bronze in the image he had previously made. So the artist decides to melt the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever, and the image is no longer—the sorrow did not endure for ever. The name of the image becomes a paradox—for The Sorrow that endureth forever is now nothing but molten bronze– it’s almost as if Wilde were revealing that the sorrow never was, and that it only abideth for a moment.  Yet out of this molten form he materializes his initial desire to create The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.  So now the artist’s only source of bronze, the only medium he can effectively think ‘in’, is the image of The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment—it is not the pleasure itself, but only its image. The image stands as a paradox against the concept it evokes, for the image is now more than just a moment– it is unfleeting unlike the pleasure it alludes to.And the artist fashioned this image from the image of the sorrow that endureth for ever, not from the sorrow itself. All the artist has and will ever have is the transmutable substance of his images. Bronze, a substance that has particular properties but that can be shaped to represent an image of anything else, is language for Wilde. 

This decadent thought, as evident through Wilde and Rachilde, is in line with symbolist thought, as well as Flaubertian thought. Language is the medium, the bronze from which images can be momentarily sculpted, from which limits can be exposed and surpassed. In Mallarme we read of the ‘Azur’ that incarcerates the poet in a struggle between representation and reality. Language is the medium through which all these insufficient allusions, evocations and concepts are revived. Without language there would be no bronze to invoke and describe the gap between matter and thought that is made evident through Mallarme’s poetry,  Wilde’s paradoxes, Rachilde’s gender inversions,  and Flaubert’s temptations. All of these authors wrote to unveil the boundaries of language while simultaneously surpassing them. It’s as if a state were to choose its own borders only to expand beyond them. Desire for the artist therefore eludes the concept– desire is a limit that is broken and defined simultaneously– desire is bronze that shifts from image to image through language.


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