I was watching an episode of "Penny Dreadful" (ep.04 of season 1, here's the YouTube link for the scene in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxp21dbnRnA). In this episode, Dorian Gray (the one inspired from Wilde's book) and another character, Ethan, have the following discussion:

Ethan: Do you have a favorite [they are looking at Dorian's portraits collection]?

Dorian : I do. But it's not in here.

Ethan: I've seen some pictures I like a lot actually. I don't know if they count. There's an Anasazi village in Colorado. This was an Indian tribe that died out a long time ago.They build this town up the side of the mountain, in the cliffs. There are some paintings they left on the walls from thousands of years ago. No people. Just animals. The sun. The moon. Whatever they thought important enough to, uh, remember.

Dorian: Why do you like them?

Ethan: They're primitive. [Silence] No. They're honest.

Dorian: Can art be honest?

Ethan: You're the expert there.

Dorian: I think music can. Perhaps only music, because it's ephemeral. That's the paradox. Music is a phantasm, but it's true.

Ethan: You know your music, too.

Dorian: Oh, I'm bored with them. I know every groove of every cylinder. There's nothing new. [Silence] There is one though. I would ask if you know Wagner, but you'd only pretend you don't. It's the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Literally translated, it means "love-death. [Music starts] This is the very end of the opera. Isolde's lover is dead before her. They're on a beach. The waves are rolling in and out. You can hear that in the music, can't you? And her heartbreak, can you hear it?

Here's my question: What does Dorian mean when he asks if art can be honest?

This makes the scene so mysterious and symbolic (and so beautiful) to me. I would love to hear some ideas about the meaning of it.

  • 1
    As an artist I would say that no matter how honest your feelings are while creating a work of art, your work will always only be a facsimile of the only truly authentic creation: nature.
    – Bread
    Jan 6, 2019 at 3:52
  • This sounds very Schopenhauerian, "Music… stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world... We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self." See Schopenhauer on the Power of Music. Wilde was influenced by him.
    – Conifold
    Jan 6, 2019 at 9:47
  • See Dominic Manganiello, Ethics and Aesthetics in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1983). Jan 6, 2019 at 10:03
  • I made an edit to hopefully clarify your question. You may roll this back or continue editing. I earlier up-voted your question. Welcome to Philosophy! Jan 6, 2019 at 16:19

3 Answers 3


In the specific context, Dorian said that because he's vain, and he's a liar. In "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Dorian makes a deal with the devil in which a certain portrait of him ages but he does not. The author also applies to the portrait the facial qualities he supposes comes with a bad character, while Dorian's own face retains its innocent appearance.

I suppose that in the present conversation, Dorian fears Ethan's statement about art and wishes to make that trust in "honest" art disappear. So he challenges Ethan's simple appreciation for the petroglyphs and their raw honesty with an intellectual-sounding contradiction...

Dorian wants to make a high burden of proof for art being honest because he would do anything to make others believe that the appearance of the bedeviled painting, should anybody see it, is less trustworthy than the appearance of his face. "Can art be honest?" has the sound of a nice open-ended philosophical question, but like Pontius Pilate's "What is truth?", it is a sophisticated manipulation.


Honesty involves a faithfulness to truth. Dominic O'Meara in his introduction to the neoPlatonist Plotinus writes (page 93)

Beauty is Form or true Being: 'beautifulness is what is true being'.

This goes beyond the "prosaic approach" (page 89) that Plotinus claims is the Stoic view (Enneads, I. 6. 1. 20-5)

Everyone, one might say, asserts that it is good proportion of the parts in relation to each other and to the whole, with the addition of the factor of good colour, which makes visual beauty, and to be beautiful for these [visual objects] and for all others is to be proportioned and measured'....

He also discusses ugliness: (page 92)

The ugly soul is full of vice, 'intemperate and unjust, filled with many desires, full of turmoil, [living in] fears through cowardice, in envy through pettiness ...in love with impure pleasures, living the life of whatever it is affected by through the body and taking ugliness as pleasant' (5. 26-31)

To address the question the OP raises:

Here's my question: What does Dorian mean when he asks if art can be honest?

Given O'Meara's presentation of Plotinus, Dorian may be asking if there is more to art, and more generally what is beautiful, than the prosaic approach Plotinus attributed to the Stocis. That more would include the Platonic participation in Form. That participation may be viewed as a type of "honesty" if art can achieve it.

O'Meara, D. J. (1995). Plotinus: an introduction to the Enneads. Oxford University Press.

  • Many thanks for you response and for the references! I would like to up-vote your comment, but, unfortunately, my reputation doesn't allow me to do so for now. :-/ Jan 6, 2019 at 19:38
  • @LeThéoricien.I am glad you liked this. Keep asking questions and even answering them and you should gain reputation. Welcome, again, to Philosophy! Jan 6, 2019 at 22:17

This is more of an opinion than an answer, but the comments are so small. I've had many conversations about what art actually is.

To me, art is anything done deliberately to evoke a noticable change in the audience's thoughts. A well crafted joke.. haircut or even a prat fall and a wry smile.. anything.

Some art is accessible to people with no skill at all in the given art form.. such as comedy. But some art.. requires that the audience have some knowledge of the artists skill, in order for the audience to get the artists intended mental kick.

Have you ever been moved to tears by a song? Have you ever been completely captured for minutes on end by the sheer beauty of a sculpture.. or a motorbike.. or a painting?

Art that moves you doesn't have to be 'honest', it can simply be brilliant. But art works best when it touches something deep inside you. Something you can't initially put into words.

A cave hand print of a father's hand. With his child's hand on top of it might touch a father's heart, 20,000 years after it was done.

That kind of naive honest art is what was being discussed IMO. Honesty is timeless.. it is possible to spend years of your life, with great talent and produce honesty.. but it's difficult to contrive.

Music or poetry is IMO easier as a medium for this.. because words are so accessible. They say when you are doing art.. you should do it from the soul. Yes.. you can spend 30 years learning how to play instruments.. and perform.. and you can fake emotion and integrity.. but it's only when you disengage your mind.. and let it come from inside that you produce anything of real worth.

Or... Is it? For years I was moved nearly to tears by 'say a little prayer'. It seems like an honest expression of a woman's love for a man. But... I believe it was written... By a man. Still a beautiful song though.

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