Oscar Wilde on the critic as artist

The Critic As Artist is the most comprehensive picture of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy. Here, using the form of the Socratic dialogue, Wilde contrasts the role of artist with that of the art critic, and comes away with the conclusion that the critic, though commenting only on someone else’s work, still plays a more pivotal part in shaping culture and thought than the original creator of that work.

It is a somewhat presumptuous perspective and not a little hubristic. One should also bear in mind before applying Wilde’s ideas wholesale to heavy metal – musically or critically – that metal as an artform works inside a framework different from all others, and therefore may not be fully compatible with some of Wilde’s more hedonistic assertions:

“If we consider tradition as conforming to the accumulated wisdom of ages past, and modernism as the questioning and frequent renouncing of that same wisdom, then it becomes self-evident that heavy metal occupies a strange, chameleon-like, shape-shifting position between the two. On the one hand is metal’s emphatic rejection of social and political tradition, yet, paradoxically, on the other hand is metal’s stubborn orthodoxy. Which leads me to believe that metal weaves its own unique tradition around itself as a cocoon. This tradition may be inimical to the contemporary climate at first, iconoclastic even, basing itself on a foundation of abstract ideals, but once this tradition is established, metal changes mode from a revolutionary idiom to a conservative one. Metal creates its own narrative and then makes a virtue out of adherence to that narrative”

In Wilde’s thought, the difference between art and critic is entirely arbitrary. Common consensus may state that the process of creation poses more challenges and therefore is far nobler than that of merely talking about the end product; but, then, is there really a difference between art and criticism? What else does the artist do if not critique nature itself, either outside of him or within, leaving certain details out, including others, all to meet his individual propensities in that pocket of space and time? Seen in this light, the critic then occupies the same position with respect to a work of art that the artist occupies with respect to nature.

But if that is the case, then surely what the critic attempts to do is only an interpretation of an interpretation and, as such, several levels lower than the process of creating art. What possible purpose can this self-indulgent nitpicking over someone else’s expression serve? Shouldn’t art retain something of the ephemeral about it, instead of being ravaged to shreds by blowhards who never managed to bring anything new into the world themselves? Doesn’t art lose something of the ineffable when it is fleshed out and reasoned apart?

In Wilde’s view, however, art actually exists for the singular purpose of being criticized; and that should not be taken to imply an insult to art, either. After all, if a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? The critic only uses a work of art as a touchstone and a launchpad to bring various other subjects tangentially related to the work of art at hand into contrast. In other words, where the artist uses nature for inspiration, the critic uses the artist’s creation as the clay with which he shapes his own work of art.

This shouldn’t be seen so much an act of scavenging as it is of enhancing the original work of art with an altogether fresh view which may have been occluded to the artist at the time of conception. Art and true criticism therefore exist in a mutually reinforcing loop; the former may claim that it exists for itself and no other reason, but without a perceptive audience, it would be as good as nullified. Criticism, on the other hand, obviously cannot exist without a justifiable premise, but once provided, can, in the right hands, add something legitimate to the original work of art.

The critic’s real responsibility is to cultivate an air of magic around that which he criticizes, which in turn can pull others into that sphere of experience; yes, on occasion, he can attempt dissecting the work of art on an objective basis, discussing form, technique, and such, but in Wilde’s scheme of things, objectivity ranks a poor and distant second to the subjective interpretation. Wilde says that the true critic is, by necessity, subjective, irrational, and unfair. We are objective about only those things which don’t capture our whole and soul. But when great art truly captivates us, there is an element of madness about us in its presence; there is awe, there is humility, and there is recognition on some subliminal level of being exposed in that moment to some higher ideal which previously was the reserve of the mind only. In such circumstances, pretense to objectivity, rationality, fairness, and other such presumed, secular virtues becomes disingenuous.

Wilde draws on Plato’s theories to suggest that the ideal critic is bred through an appreciation and understanding of aesthetics, and by the discipline of solitary contemplation. He has to be a man comfortable in his own company, too, and courageous enough to endure interminable bouts of silence. Action may be the credo of society, but Wilde rates it inferior to the power of introspection. Action rushes forward headlong towards its climax in a succession of instants, but contemplation and soliloquy assimilate and assemble experience into a steadfast foundation on which one can anchor himself as a man of conviction. As Wilde quips, the standard inquiry in an enlightened society would be “What are you thinking?” rather than “What are you doing?

I have noted these twin themes before albeit in slightly varying contexts and certainly with far less effect. The death of aesthetic is self-evident in the overt garishness of modern living, where form, manner, and poise, in thought foremost but in deed too, have come to be such scarce commodities, buried under the rubble of timid political correctness. The true critic, however, should be fiercely devoted to the worship of aesthetic, or beauty, above all else, as precarious as the places it is found in might be. And on the occasions when he experiences that beauty, he should have the unprepossessed will to capture the moment for as long as it takes that beauty to become some elemental part of his constitution.

But ultimately, Wilde posits the critic as the indispensable link in making the world a better place to live in. By simply appreciating what is beautiful in life, by being a time-traveling reservoir of informed feeling, and by engendering a culture of honest-to-self thought and discussion, Wilde is optimistic that we can overcome the material restraints that divide us and establish a universal brotherhood of thought.


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