Coincidentally, read a book of Oscar Wilde’s plays and viewed Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ the same week. Both give an interesting picture of the society in which they lived and how these great artists viewed modernity. Both are criticizing the audiences of their art – Wilde would make lot of allusions to places and situations which only a ‘cultured’ audience would appreciate, Chaplin’s movie was unlikely to have been seen by many of the poor, considering that it was released just after the Great Depression.
It is quite remarkable that both were darlings of a society that they treated with disrespect in their respective arts. They did not get away with it completely, however – Wilde was jailed for being a homosexual and died very young (his leftist leanings would have caught up with him sooner or later anyways), Chaplin was driven out of the USA during the McCarthy Inquisitions for his strong leftist inclinations.
Wilde uses his sharp wit to expose the moral hypocrisy of the elite in Victorian England who loved a scandal, as long as it was not in their homes. The public moralising, commodification of women, gender discrimination (“Women must be pure, unlike men…” kind of moral policing of women by women) are all themes he touches upon many times in his plays. Some of his characters are nervous about the wave of ‘modern decadence’ in Europe (apparently French novels were banned in England at that time), whereas others embrace modernity. But regardless of their standing in the modern-Victorian divide, Wilde shows that the same hypocrisy persists – some of the characters, whether modern or not are shown to be morally corrupt and reprehensible at the end. In the same way, other characters, modern or not, are shown to be upright and honest. Thus, one can infer that Modernity by itself cannot be playing a crucial role in determining a person’s character, there are values that can withstand the ravages of change in social and personal life. Thus, the Victorian anxiety about the profound change that Modernity promised to bring seems unfounded.
Chaplin’s film, on the other hand, depicts the profound changes that ‘Modern Times’ has wrought upon the poor. The opening scene of the assembly line is to me as good a description of the change in the value of human life in the age of the machine as any. The movie has some remarkable scenes depicting the relation of man and machine, which is probably why it is considered one of Chaplin’s greatest films. It shows how it was impossible for the poor to make a decent living and people trying to satiate their hunger were called thieves, while opulent luxury (very well shown in the department store where Chaplin gets a job as a night watchman) was still available to those who could afford it. Almost a century down the line, USA (along with other countries now!) still does not seem to have learnt its lessons. Communism was not attractive to the poor for its intellectual value, but just that it promised them relief from hunger.
Chaplin shows us how things have changed, and Wilde shows us the more things change, the more they remain the same. There were (are!) many that place hope in the ingenuity of man to eradicate his less desirable creations like poverty and exploitation, when the fact remains that the problem is not material or technological, but mainly moral.This transference of moral problems to technological ones is not very rare: you have automatic light systems because people don’t want to switch them off themselves, police since we are incapable of ruling ourselves, carbon credits to enjoy cars without guilt and taxes to help our fellow human beings.
Coming back to the artists themselves, both delivered strong social messages through their work though art for art’s sake was the mantra to most artists – Wilde himself was a passionate supporter of freedom of art from shackles of morality. This seems to point to the transcendent quality of art – an artist with all her prejudices is capable of creating something that is very little touched by the same prejudice. Literary and artistic pieces, which embedded within their own time, are still appreciated centuries later even though the original context is completely lost. This to me is the true measure of great art.