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The Purpose and Danger of Art According to Oscar Wilde

In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them, they leave them alone. In the case of the novel and the drama, arts in which the public do take an interest, the result of the exercise of popular authority has been absolutely ridiculous. No country produces such badly-written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England. It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him. In the case of the drama, things are a little better: the theatre-going public like the obvious, it is true, but they do not like the tedious; and burlesque and farcical comedy, the two most popular forms, are distinct forms of art. Delightful work may be produced under burlesque and farcical conditions, and in work of this kind the artist in England is allowed very great freedom. It is when one comes to the higher forms of the drama that the result of popular control is seen. The one thing that the public dislike is novelty. Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter. The public dislike novelty because they are afraid of it. It represents to them a mode of Individualism, an assertion on the part of the artist that he selects his own subject, and treats it as he chooses. The public are quite right in their attitude. Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.

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12 thoughts on “The Purpose and Danger of Art According to Oscar Wilde

  1. Some quotes from films, I take to be true. This “But if people love poetry, they love poets. And nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” is from Dr. Zhivago. The Party at the time didn’t like Zhivagos’ poetry but the public did, so it influenced the public. In England the public didn’t like poetry, so the poet didn’t influence the public. Even if they were only half educated, why shouldn’t poetry also educate?
    – – According to Wilde, “The public are quite right in their attitude. Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force”. – – Isn’t it this force that creates a poet or a painter or an architect and separates him from the farce and the burlesque? If the man has that force, then I don’t understand the danger to the mans’ art. (maybe I just don’t understand Wilde)

  2. I’m having a little trouble following your thought here and don’t want to assume I understand what your issue is when I don’t. Could you explain it to me please? thanks!

  3. Putting jumbled thoughts into a coherent pattern is hard work. I’d starve if I had to write for food. 🙂
    I think my issue is actually with Wilde the man. He was a privileged youth, well educated, married well, but just didn’t have the character to rise very far above the habits of the uneducated public that he held in distain (according to some of his biographies). Becoming a playwright and novelist brought him down closer to those uncultured masses. That was at odds with his feeling of entitlement.
    The words posted from Wilde are from an ego who thinks those who create higher forms of art (himself) should never have to pander. And I probably agree that an artist shouldn’t suppress his individualism. I also agree with him that art should disturb us. It should also lift us into a pleasurable place.
    – – My dislike of him is the putting down of the people because of their ‘popular standard of novelist’ calling them uncultivated minds in order to justify his feelings of superiority.

    • He may be fighting the part of himself that would love to pander– that would sell his soul to be loved. The artist who panders is doing no favors to his audience in my view, since what we crave is honesty not pleasure. Anybody can come up with a pleasurable fantasy — we don’t need artists for that.

      • I agree with you. I made it personal and don’t know what Wilde’s base was. Conflict or arrogance. We do crave honesty, and dismiss people and art that is not honest. I guess we seek honesty. We should seek honest pleasures as well.
        I saw the sculpture art of Miroslaw Balka 22 years ago. It was very personal. Disturbing for sure, but completely honest. He didn’t sell his soul and I fell a bit in love with the artist through his work. To be an individual is frightening, isn’t it? Man must use that Individualism force wisely and honestly. It’s a gift. Thank you for the feedback.

  4. From what I know, IMHO, that is the best ever interpretation of “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy. I wish Richard Burton had performed the text half-century ago (or “have had performed”, or even “had have had performed” considering the involvement of time-machine).

    Just for the record, “the best” is about the idea, not about the author. It would still hold “the best” even if the author were some most hated nazi (he is not, of course).

      • My mistake, sorry. I meant your message. An artist is to decide to be “disturbing and disintegrating force” or not to be. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll try to improve my English.

      • Just imagined Sheldon having resolved some big scientific puzzle, is performing the “to be or not to be” kind of thing among the TBBT gang. Big scientific opening means scientists before him ditched billions, got tons of medals and so on. Now he is to decide to be “disturbing and disintegrating force” or not to be. The TBBT characters are speechless: Sheldon is getting moral issues on the Shakespeare level. Sheldon waits a bit, and here goes his famous “Buzzinga” 🙂

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