>Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist (Excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition) represents an interesting synthesis of many of the ideas I have heretofore been exploring.
In a strict sense, he seems to be interested in extending and refining the role of the critic put forward by Matthew Arnold in his essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (also, conveniently anthologized in my Norton). Arnold holds that it is the function of criticism “to see the object as in itself it really is” (695), a notion with which Wilde assertively disagrees. As the title of the work suggests, he holds the critic in high regards as an artist in his own right, who uses the works of artists as they in turn have used the material world: as a point from which to jump in the creation of something wholly new. He seems to anticipate reader response criticism when he states that the artwork is not “expressive,” but “impressive,” and that Criticism is “in its essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another” (800). Criticism, for Wilde, has no interest in discovering the true intentions of the artist; that is a shallow endeavor. Rather, Criticism must use the artwork as a pallet upon which to read “the record of one’s own soul” (799).
Arnold maintain that criticism lays the philosophical groundwork upon which art is built. Wilde suggests, “There have been critical ages that have not been creative, in the ordinary sense of the world, ages in which the spirit of man has sought to set in order the treasures of his treasure-house” (796). It is, in fact, to this effect that Arnold sets about writing his essay to begin with. He sees a certain deficiency in the age from which he writes, a deficiency which he believes makes the creation of any true art impossible; the absence in Arnold’s England of the “national glow of life and thought” which makes epochs of great art possible, leaves contemporary art wanting “materials and a basis” which might allow it “a thorough interpretation of the world” (698). It is the function of Arnold’s proposed turn to criticism to create such an era of inquiry. Wilde agrees, stating that “there has never been a creative age that has not also been a critical age” (796).
Arnold still holds the “free creative activity” found in great art to be the “highest function of man,” and so seems to position criticism as a somewhat lesser, albeit equally necessary, pursuit (696). Wilde sees no such distinction. Indeed, the very title of his work suggests as much: the critic does not stand in relation to the artist, but rather becomes an artist himself as he experiences and interprets the art of others. For Wilde, Criticism in its highest form is “more creative than [artistic] creation” because it relates not to the world, but to one’s soul; in this sense, Criticism becomes a more pure realization of Hegel’s self-consciousness, which Wilde holds to be essential to the creation of true art (799). Wilde even goes so far, at times, as to (somewhat humorously) denigrate the artistic function. Of authors, for example, he says, “Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature” (797), and he attributes to the Mona Lisa
the possibility that da Vinci was “merely the slave of an archaic smile” (800).
Wilde’s concept of Beauty echoes and revises that of Kant. Kant asserts that “the beautiful is a symbol of the morally good” (“From Critique of the Power of Judgment,” excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition, p. 449). Wilde parallels the sentence of Kant’s when he claims that “Beauty is the symbol of symbols” (“The Critic As Artist,” p. 802). For Kant, establishing the subjective universality of Beauty was essential, and he went to great lengths to eliminate all interest from the aesthetic judgment of an artwork. In Kant’s aesthetic, beauty must have no purpose, and all judgment of beauty lies within the person who is judging. Wilde takes in these concepts and states that “because it expresses nothing,” Beauty offers the opportunity to the Critic to “put into it whatever one wishes” (802). Beauty, according to Wilde, “has as many meanings as man has moods,” and Criticism of artwork offers the opportunity to bring to fuller light “a form which the artist may have left void, or not understood, or understood incompletely” (802). That the artwork is somehow incomplete for the artist is an idea first raised by Shelley, who saw in the works of Dante and Milton the possibility of interpretations that the artists themselves could not have anticipated. Wilde echoes this concept when assigns to his Critic the role of “always showing us the work of art in some new relation to our age” (806).
There are aspects of Wilde’s work which call to mind Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying” as well; foremost perhaps is Wilde’s insistence that it is the primary aim of the writer to lie willfully. What Nietzsche asserts gravely, however–that we are blind to our reality because of our immersion in a lie–Wilde approaches playfully; he seems to register Nietzsche’s concerns even as he acknowledges them as the components of the great play-thing that is human existence. In his exploration of the critic, in fact, Wilde builds an argument that echoes Nietzsche’s at each step, while at each turn reversing the “tone of grim intensity” that pervades Nietzsche in favor of a certain frivolity (Editor’s note, p. 78). Wilde first acknowledges indirectly Nietzsche’s skepticism of language when he asserts that language “is the parent, and not the child, of thought” (797). Wilde maintains a certain level of pride in the human animal, who through language can “rise above” “lower” lifeforms (797). Where Nietzsche criticizes language for its roll in constructing a false sense of reality, Wilde praises this linguistic function in human existence:
…it is the function of Literature to create, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvellous [sic], more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon, and through which common natures seek to realize their perfection (798).
One can see that Wilde uses the word true just as Nietzsche would, to describe the constructed reality revealed through the employment of language. Language divides us from the crude rule of mere action, which Wilde points out any animal may achieve, calling action “a blind thing, dependent on external influences, and moved by an impulse of whose nature it is unconscious” (797). Wilde’s man of action here begins to sound a bit like Nietzsche’s intuitive man.
As Wilde describes the way in which the critic interacts with the artist, he does so in a way that hearkens the role that Nietzsche assigns to Science. For Nietzsche, science “works unceasingly” to fit the world of primary concepts, concepts more or less created as metaphors for reality, into a “columbarium,” a great framework which imposes metaphors upon metaphors and thus removes humanity ever farther from the primary experience of reality (771). Similarly, Wilde’s critic
occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought (798-99).
As Nietzsche’s Science piles metaphor upon metaphor, so Wilde’s criticism is “a creation within a creation,” and just as Nietzsche condemns Science for this tendency, Wilde praises criticism as “the purest form of personal impression” because “it has least reference to any standard external to itself” (799).
Reading Wilde, I am struck by the way in which he constructs his arguments. As is evident in the above analysis, he is interesting not so much for the originality of his ideas, but for the wild (read, “Wilde”) spin he puts on the ideas of others. He uses the dialogue format to highlight the ostensible absurdity of his theses, and then shows them to arise out of a certain point of view taken on past theoretical work. It is, of course, the subjective point of view which arrives as the champion of Wilde’s Criticism, and employing just such a point of view serves to demonstrate the very theory he is positing.