“All Art is Quite Useless”: What a Wild(e) Idea!

One Monday afternoon, years ago. Time, around 3:30 pm. I thought of taking a little nap to rest my eyes after some long hours of staring at the computer. But of course, there was no sign of sleep anywhere.

Without even looking I picked up a book from the pile of books on the bedside table, thinking maybe reading a page or two might make me tired enough, and sleep would then bless me.

It was Oscar Wilde‘s classic ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray‘ – something I had read decades ago. But a few years ago my husband bought a new copy of this thinking he would like to read it. Of course, he didn’t and the book had been taking a good rest on the bedside table.

Until that Monday afternoon.

Those who have read the book may recall the famous “Preface” to this book. I admit I had forgotten most of it, except for a couple of sentences which are frequently quoted.

I am not an artist, but I have close family members and friends who are – painters, photographers, musicians, dancers, poets. And when I read Oscar Wilde’s Preface that Monday afternoon, my thoughts went to all those artists I know and those I don’t. And I didn’t read anything beyond that Preface. I still haven’t.

Here is the Preface.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.

To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

What a collection of witty aphorisms here! So Wilde-like.

By sharing this Preface here, I am not declaring my complete agreement with all the things Mr. Wilde says. For example, I am not convinced that “All art is quite useless.” Of course, one would need to first figure out what is meant by Art. And what is meant by Usefulness? Does a beautiful piece of hand-made pottery, say a vase or a bowl, made by a studio potter qualify as art?

But I think I somewhat follow the line of argument that Wilde is making here and see the value of his point and accept its partially and contextually relevant truth-value. And certainly, when one situates the Preface in the larger controversy that surrounded this particular book, the author’s words become hugely significant and very apt.

Wilde added this Preface to the book, along with several other changes, after the first, 1890 edition of the book was highly criticized. He used it to “address the criticism and defend the novel’s reputation.” The collection of statements in this Preface also “serves as an indicator of the way in which [he] intends the novel to be read.”

But the main reason why I became fascinated by this Preface is this: It serves as an excellent illustration of what Sri Aurobindo refers to as the conflict between Aesthetic and Ethical tendencies of the human mind. In his major work on social philosophy, The Human Cycle, he writes:

There is in our mentality a side of will, conduct, character which creates the ethical man; there is another side of sensibility to the beautiful,—understanding beauty in no narrow or hyper-artistic sense,—which creates the artistic and aesthetic man.

Therefore there can be such a thing as a predominantly or even exclusively ethical culture; there can be too, evidently, a predominantly or even exclusively aesthetic culture. There are at once created two conflicting ideals which must naturally stand opposed and look askance at each other with a mutual distrust or even reprobation.

The aesthetic man tends to be impatient of the ethical rule; he feels it to be a barrier to his aesthetic freedom and an oppression on the play of his artistic sense and his artistic faculty; he is naturally hedonistic,—for beauty and delight are inseparable powers, —and the ethical rule tramples on pleasure, even very often on quite innocent pleasures, and tries to put a strait waistcoat on the human impulse to delight. He may accept the ethical rule when it makes itself beautiful or even seize on it as one of his instruments for creating beauty, but only when he can subordinate it to the aesthetic principle of his nature,—just as he is often drawn to religion by its side of beauty, pomp, magnificent ritual, emotional satisfaction, repose or poetic ideality and aspiration,—we might almost say, by the hedonistic aspects of religion. Even when fully accepted, it is not for their own sake that he accepts them.

The ethical man repays this natural repulsion with interest. He tends to distrust art and the aesthetic sense as something lax and emollient, something in its nature undisciplined and by its attractive appeals to the passions and emotions destructive of a high and strict self-control. He sees that it is hedonistic and he finds that the hedonistic impulse is non-moral and often immoral. It is difficult for him to see how the indulgence of the aesthetic impulse beyond a very narrow and carefully guarded limit can be combined with a strict ethical life. He evolves the puritan who objects to pleasure on principle; not only in his extremes—and a predominant impulse tends to become absorbing and leads towards extremes—but in the core of his temperament he remains fundamentally the puritan.

The misunderstanding between these two sides of our nature is an inevitable circumstance of our human growth which must try them to their fullest separate possibilities and experiment in extremes in order that it may understand the whole range of its capacities. (CWSA, Volume 25, pp. 95-96, emphasis added).

A lot is packed in this one paragraph. It may require a slow and careful reading. Perhaps a few times to fully appreciate the point being made here.

Many of the controversies that we witness around art and literature can be understood in the light of this psychological basis, this misunderstanding between the two sides of human nature and mentality. It certainly explains much of the criticism Wilde’s book received, the plot of which also interestingly deals with similar themes of aestheticism, hedonism, morality, virtue and beauty.

Is there a way to move beyond or reconcile these two sides of our human nature? That is an obvious question. But in life there are no quick or obvious answers. The only answer I can give now is – read the full chapter at least, if not the whole book 🙂

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