In the poem in prose, “The Artist,” it is difficult to miss the undertones of ephemerality and perpetuity that Wilde wove into the piece. It is also interesting to note that, much like the lines between the artistic and physical worlds are blurred in The Picture of Dorian Gray, so to are the lines between the ephemeral and the eternal blurred in “The Artist.” In the poem, the idea (also reflected in other works by Wilde) that pleasure can come from pain is also explored.
The poem begins with the Artist receiving a desire to make an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. It should be noted that this desire is a capricious one which comes to him out of the blue and which he then sets out to fulfill at all costs. It is this capriciousness and his desire to work in bronze that impels him to deface the tomb of the one he loved as the statute he built to commemorate the love of a “man who dieth not” is the only bronze that is left. In other words, the Artist wishes to deface the statute that was supposed to stay for all eternity on this tomb in the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever, to make a lasting bronze image of the ephemeral concept The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. Here we see the blurring of the lines between the ephemeral and the eternal worlds. An image of an eternal sorrow is sacrificed to create a lasting image of a temporary pleasure. It is also curious to note that the Artist is referred to as a man “that dieth not.” This may mean that he hasn’t died yet, but it could also mean that he is immortal. It is not clear to me at the moment what import this would have for our understanding of the poem but it could be a commentary on the enduring nature of art.
Most importantly, however, in this poem, the reader is confronted with the malleability of bronze. The whole point of building statues, especially the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever, in bronze is that the statue will also last forever. We have an idea of bronze as a sturdy medium that endures. This understanding of bronze is completely reversed, however, when we see that its sturdy and enduring nature can be changed by throwing it into a fire. Before our very eyes, an enduring element is made ephemeral and malleable. Furthermore, it is in this dramatic climax that the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever becomes an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. The eternal is sacrificed, oxymoronically, for the ephemeral.
It should also be noted, however, that this is also a case in which pleasure is, quite literally, derived from sorrow. This is another example of the inversion of traditional value theories that is also present in other works by Wilde, most notably The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this poem in prose, however, this inversion is done in a very tangible and physical way. A bad thing is literally turned into a good thing. An image representing sorrow is turned into an image representing pleasure. This transformation also throws into questions our beliefs about sorrow, for example. Even though the sorrow was supposed to be eternal, it is sacrificed out of the blue. Is this supposed to map on to our lives? Are we also to understand that when we believe that we will never get over a loss or other traumatizing event, we will, in the future suddenly get over it? Is there the possibility, furthermore, that it could actually become pleasure? It is interesting to note that, at the end of the poem, the image that is cast in bronze and that is supposed to endure for all eternity is The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. But, then again, what type of assurance does that really give us? We never known when it will be thrown into the fire once more.
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.
The quarter began with an excerpt from the conclusion of Walter Pater’s 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry and now ends with Oscar Wilde’s 1894 prose poem “The Artist.” Pater’s writing anticipates the decadent ethos, and Wilde’s poem gives form to it. The two, taken together, celebrate art as the purveyor of the transient, ecstatic experience on which decadent writers place so much value. The moment is privileged over the forever, the ecstatic over the moral, and the experience itself over the “fruit of experience” (Pater).
“To maintain […] ecstasy,” Pater writes, “is success in life.” Art, he says, should not be didactic or advance any moral claims. One does not correctly observe art in an act of self-improvement; the moment of observation is the only moment that matters to Pater. It is “simply for those moments’ sake” that art is observed (Pater). The Pater excerpt offers an illuminating distillation (if even there is one) of the decadent credo: the exaltation of the moment as transcendent and life-fulfilling. Des Esseintes’ purpose in retreating to his museum of fine taste is not, as might be concluded after a facile reading, the achievement of enlightenment or some higher morality. He is transfixed by the painting of Salome for what frisson of excitement it arouses in him–the moment of observation provides him with “never-ending ecstasy” (Against Nature 44). It’s not erudition but the experience of encounter that Des Esseintes seeks. He has undertaken what Pater calls life’s “one desperate effort to see and touch.”
Wilde in “The Artist” offers a similar account of art’s value. The artist in question has created something that commemorates “the one thing that he had loved in life” (Wilde 900). This image, then, holds emotional importance to the creator. It is the “sign of the love of man that dieth not,” an artistic rendering of the most powerful human feeling (Wilde 900). A traditional understanding of art’s value might lead one to celebrate this creation as the most beautiful, the most important, of objects to the creator. It would seem to be his chef d’oeuvre, the first among all others in the hierarchy of his creations. But Wilde’s understanding of art’s value is, of course, not traditional, and the object is quite suddenly “set in a great furnace” and destroyed (Wilde 900). The bronze image in memorial of his deceased love, the sorrow that endureth for ever, has been destroyed to make possible the creation of the image of “the pleasure that abideth for a moment.” Nowhere clearer is the decadent disposition toward art evident. Value in art is found not in the forever, but in the moment. The image of his dead love might encourage the artist to recover, might provide him with a comforting souvenir of a companion lost, but that is of little importance: the value of the experience of the new image is greater. Wilde, it is evident, espouses Pater’s characterization of art’s value. It “comes to you,” Pater writes, “proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” The creation of the artist has value only for the experience it provides, and once this experience has passed, it might as well be cast into the furnace.