Artifice seeks to impart information, be it a message, an opinion, a judgment, or a physiological stimulus. It is therefore naturally implicated in the creation of Consensus, a term I am using to describe the cloud of received opinions and ideas in which we all live. Consensus is the statistical world of useful knowledge, generalization, habit, custom, and ideology.

There is no room for genuine conception in Consensus but only preconception, pre-thought, all things having been packaged prior to delivery. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself” The last thing artificers want, however, is to divide their audience,” he wrote. “Anomalies must be ironed out of the work, which for its part must exhibit seamless continuity and smoothness” “Perfect artifice would evoke exactly the same emotional state in everyone regardless of who they were,” he said. Artifice appeals to our physiological urges by replacing individuality with an abstraction. The more a pornographic work objectifies people, the more the viewer is objectified in turn, he writes. Artifice can lead us to acts of self-betrayal. The marketer’s goal is to have us act in certain ways whether or not we personally approve of the prescribed behavior. Marketing exemplifies the basic principle of consumer culture, that William S. Burroughs dissects in Naked Lunch. You’re selling customers to the product. The product itself is secondary, all products are junk from the salesman’s cynical viewpoint that goes straight to the “reptilian brain,” the most primitive part of the nervous system. “The reptilian brain always wins” .


Proper art stills us, evoking an emotional state in which “the mind is arrested and raised above desiring and desiring” Improper art does the opposite, aiming to make the percipient act, think, or feel in a prescribed manner. Art is constantly being put to uses that are at odds with its essence. Cultural institutions, social pressures, laws, customs, fashions, and trends pull it in every direction: In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce outlines his theory of art. For the young James Joyce, true art is “static,” while false art, which he will here call artifice, is “kinetic”


Joyce describes two types of artifice: pornographic art and didactic art. In pornographic art, things are presented in a way that makes us want to possess or consume them. Didactic art is essentially pornography in the minor key, he writes. Both types are “kinetic” because they appeal to physiological urges rather than individual urges. “All forms of didacticism place art in the service of moral judgment,” he argues, “where all works are designed solely to convey a message or moral judgment” . 

Our intention is not to claim that artifice is invariably “wrong,” he writes, only that it falls short of the effect that art alone can achieve. Popular fiction genres often rest on a didactic foundation. Their purpose is to teach us how to act, and show us. How to feel by giving us something to judge,” he adds. “It fails because it subordinates the aesthetic to interests that are foreign to it,” he says, “and shows us what to think, and how to Act”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *