Wilde Art Philosophies

Oscar WildeI ran across a fascinating lecture the other day. It was delivered to Art students from Royal Academy in Westminster, England, on June 30, 1883, by none other than Oscar Wilde. Turns out, this author pondered aesthetics extensively and was unafraid to share his opinions on the matter.  Some of Wilde’s concepts were illuminating, some confirming, and with others I flat-out disagreed. I’ll try to sum up a few major concepts…
*Note: I also pulled a few Wilde quotes from an essay by Leonared Cresswell Ingleby entitled “Oscar Wilde: The Philosophy of Beauty”

Those who labor to create works of art “seek to materialise [beauty] in a form that gives joy to the soul through the senses.” Beauty, he claims, is a particularly dangerous concept for young artists, who tend to seek ideal beauty. Wilde asserts that beauty is not otherworldly or an impossible standard but a concept of the world: “You must find it in life and re-create it in art.”

However, the artist does not require beautiful surroundings and beautiful subjects to create a true work of art, for “nothing is beautiful or ugly in itself at all. With the facts of the object he has nothing to do, but with its appearance only, and appearance is a matter of light and shade, of masses, of position, and of value.”  As all objects are subject to changes in light, position, etc., Wilde argues that there is no such thing as an object that cannot be beautiful (in the right conditions). Appearance is “a matter of effect merely,” as the look of an object so relies on its environment. Wilde says explicitly that a painter must “paint things as they seem NOT as they are.” Do not, in other words, let your preconceived notions about the object or its intrinsic nature affect your artwork.

In fact, Wilde attributes almost of all a painting’s success to the artist and not the subject. Within Essay and Lectures, Wilde writes that art touches the soul by “a certain inventive and creative handling entirely independent of anything definitely poetical in the subject, something entirely satisfying in itself, which is, as the Greeks would say, in itself an end.  So the joy of poetry come never from the subject but from an inventive handling of rhythmical language.” The artist filters the details from nature, taking “of it what salutary for his own soul, choosing some facts and rejecting others.”

“All good art…has nothing to do with any particular century; but this universality is the quality of the work of art; the conditions that produce that quality are different. And what, I think, you should do is to realise completely your age in order completely to abstract yourself from it.”

Furthermore, he states in Essay and Lectures:
“And so it comes that he who seems to stand more remote from his age is he who mirrors it best, because he has stripped like of that mist of familiarity, which…makes life obscure to us”

Here, Oscar and I part ways. He does not believe that technique should be identifiable in the work of art. No sign of the artist should be present in a painting: “A picture is finished when all traces of work, and of the means employed to bring about the result, have disappeared.”

Ah, but there is so much value in brushstrokes! There is something wonderful about recognizing the touche of the artist, their presence and individuality. Even the lack of technique influences one’s experience with the work. The artist’s hand should not, however, become the subject of the work; it should not take away from the narrative it illustrates. Perhaps the artist should not consider the presence of technique while painting…it should seem like a natural extension of visual translation and as integral to the scene as colored pigment. The technical work should belong to the work as a whole, not carry with it a separate personality or motive.

“A picture has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy. That is the first truth about art that you must never lose sight of. A picture is a purely decorative thing.” At first that sentence stunned me. Does he truly mean that paintings are destined to be decor? The dictionary actually states that “decorative” objects serve “only to decorate, in contrast to providing a meaningful experience.” Yet, Wilde also writes: “the object of art is to stir the most divine and remote of the chords which make music in our soul…” Is not that saying that art is meant to give the viewer a meaningful experience? I’m inclined to spoon-feed Wilde’s words back from whence they came (that is, unless anyone wishes to share a bit of insight?).

Whew! Oscar Wilde certainly has quite a few opinions on the subject of aesthetics and Art, though sometimes I feel like he opens a can of worms and saunters away. However, it is always fascinating to read an author’s perspective, as they are at least somewhat more familiar with the medium of written language than many of us visual artists.

Here are a few more quotes from the lecture (and they are not all reflective of my own opinions!):

  • “Art is the science of beauty, and Mathematics the science of truth…”“And as regards histories of art, they are quite valueless to you unless you are seeking the ostentatious oblivion of an art professorship.”
  • “As regards to archaeology, then, avoid it all together: archaeology is merely the science of making excuses for bad art; it is the rock on which many a young artist flounders and shipwrecks; it is the abyss from which no artist, old or young, ever returns.  Or if he does return, he is so covered with the dust of ages the mildew of time, that he is quite unrecognizable as an artist…”
  • “There is no golden age of art; only artists who have produced what is more golden than gold.”
  • “To paint what you see is a good rule in art, but to see what is worth painting is better.”

One response to “Wilde Art Philosophies

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