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“The Critic as Artist,” by Oscar Wilde

A commenter pointed us to The Critic as Artist, by Oscar Wilde. I’d never heard of this story before, so I clicked on the link and read it, and it was excellent.

Some bits:

Ernest: But, seriously speaking, what is the use of art-criticism? Why cannot the artist be left alone, to create a new world if he wishes it, or, if not, to shadow forth the world which we already know, and of which, I fancy, we would each one of us be wearied if Art, with her fine spirit of choice and delicate instinct of selection, did not, as it were, purify it for us, and give to it a momentary perfection. It seems to me that the imagination spreads, or should spread, a solitude around it, and works best in silence and in isolation. Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamour of criticism? Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work? . . . in the best days of art there were no art-critics.

Gilbert: I seem to have heard that observation before, Ernest. It has all the vitality of error and all the tediousness of an old friend.

Ernest: It is true. . . . In the best days of art there were no art-critics. The sculptor hewed from the marble block the great white-limbed Hermes that slept within it . . .

Gilbert: But with regard to your statement that the Greeks had no art-critics, I assure you that is quite absurd. It would be more just to say that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics. . . . even if not a single fragment of art-criticism had come down to us from Hellenic or Hellenistic days, it would be none the less true that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics, and that they invented the criticism of art just as they invented the criticism of everything else. For, after all, what is our primary debt to the Greeks? Simply the critical spirit. And, this spirit, which they exercised on questions of religion and science, of ethics and metaphysics, of politics and education, they exercised on questions of art also, and, indeed, of the two supreme and highest arts, they have left us the most flawless system of criticism that the world has ever seen.

Ernest: But what are the two supreme and highest arts?

Gilbert: Life and Literature, life and the perfect expression of life. . . .

Ernest: I am quite ready to admit that I was wrong in what I said about the Greeks. They were, as you have pointed out, a nation of art-critics. I acknowledge it, and I feel a little sorry for them. For the creative faculty is higher than the critical. There is really no comparison between them.

Gilbert: The antithesis between them is entirely arbitrary. Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name. You spoke a little while ago of that fine spirit of choice and delicate instinct of selection by which the artist realises life for us, and gives to it a momentary perfection. Well, that spirit of choice, that subtle tact of omission, is really the critical faculty in one of its most characteristic moods, and no one who does not possess this critical faculty can create anything at all in art. . . .

Ernest: I should have said that great artists work unconsciously, that they were `wiser than they knew,’ as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere.

Gilbert: It is really not so, Ernest. All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does. A great poet sings because he chooses to sing. . . .

Ernest: You have been talking of criticism as an essential part of the creative spirit, and I now fully accept your theory. But what of criticism outside creation? I have a foolish habit of reading periodicals, and it seems to me that most modern criticism is perfectly valueless.

Gilbert: So is most modern creative work also . . . criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does. . . . Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature. The difficulty that I should fancy the reviewer feels is the difficulty of sustaining any standard. . . .

Ernest: But, my dear fellow—excuse me for interrupting you—you seem to me to be allowing your passion for criticism to lead you a great deal too far. For, after all, even you must admit that it is much more difficult to do a thing than to talk about it.

Gilbert: More difficult to do a thing than to talk about it? Not at all. That is a gross popular error. It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it. In the sphere of actual life that is of course obvious. Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it. There is no mode of action, no form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals. It is only by language that we rise above them, or above each other—by language, which is the parent, and not the child, of thought. . . .

Something about this passage reminds me of the psychology professor who sent me an email a few years ago saying:

There are two kinds of people in science: bumblers and pointers. Bumblers are the people who get up every morning and make mistakes, trying to find truth but mainly tripping over their own feet, occasionally getting it right but typically getting it wrong. Pointers are the people who stand on the sidelines, point at them, and say “You bumbled, you bumbled.” These are our only choices in life.

If I’d only known about this Oscar Wilde essay at the time, I could’ve just sent it to that psychology guy and maybe he would’ve got the point. Or maybe not; any psychologist who with a straight face says, “there are two kinds of people,” is probably beyond any hope of reform.

12 Comments

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks for posting – this is great. The link to Critic as Artist is giving a 404, just a FYI

  2. Wonks Anonymous says:

    “It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it”
    True in the sense Wilde notes that there are many species of animals which can do things but not talk at all, not so clearly true when it comes to art. There are a plethora of pop-culture websites with critics to talk about things, alongside generators of clickbait “content”. It’s rare for any of them to be nearly as notable as the artists they comment on, rather they seem easily replaceable. We take note when a critic like the Cahiers du Cinema group or Kogonada rises up to actually creating the art they previously commented on, it’s not so remarkable when an artist delivers commentary because everyone can already do that.

    • Andrew says:

      Wonks:

      Interesting point. Let me say this: There are lots of bad critics, just as there are lots of bad artists. But it could well be that bad critics are harder to avoid than bad artists. If someone writes a book you don’t like, or a book you don’t think you’ll like, you just won’t read it, or you’ll stop reading early on. Even if an artist you dislike is famous, if you find the work unreadable, you can easily avoid it. But bad critics can get ensconced in positions in otherwise mostly solid journalistic institutions, and then it’s harder to avoid them. It’s rare that I’ll read a David Brooks column (usually it happens when someone’s annoyed by it and they send me a link), but it’s hard not to notice him when I’m reading the newspaper.

  3. There’s a great book by Giorgio Agamben on this topic called The Man Without Content. My understanding is that the ability to bring something new into being was feared in the times of the Greeks (Plato called in “divine terror” and called for banishing poets from the city). The Greek word for poetry was basically the same word for any productive action, and for a long time there was no perceived difference between making something tacky or practical and something artistic. But then around the mid 17th century, when the Renaissance period was producing a flood of creative activity, there was suddenly more of a need to distinguish good art from bad art, and the idea of the critic or man of taste arose. But once the idea of the critic emerged as a person of balance and good judgment, then the idea of the work of art became associated with being exclusively available to the artist, who can’t tolerate limits or any impositions on the process of producing the work, and so becomes kind of like the opposite of the critic, being associated with imbalance and eccentricity. And as part of all this art left the realm of productive action and become something that could merely be interesting.

    I have a half-written blog post related to this actually, maybe I should finish it!

    • jim says:

      “And as part of all this art left the realm of productive action and become something that could merely be interesting.”

      Today it seems just the opposite – artists are treated as visionaries and sages.

  4. billb says:

    Ah, the master critic at work!

    If I’d only known about this Oscar Wilde essay at the time, I could’ve just sent it to that psychology guy and maybe he would’ve got the point. Or maybe not; any psychologist who with a straight face says, “there are two kinds of people,” is probably beyond any hope of reform.

    Thanks for the post, it’s a treat as your blog is every day.

  5. Yes, this is great. Critics fall into at least two traps: compulsive negativity and compulsive enthusiasm. The former is a little more common among critics, I think, since enthusiasm can come across as unsophisticated. But both are equally flawed when rigid. The critic has to be able and willing to point out what’s good and what isn’t, across and within works, without being cynical about it. That is not easy at all.

  6. jim says:

    I agree w/ Wonks that art critics are a dime a dozen; and disagree with Wilde that art criticism is an endeavor as challenging as art.

    This doesn’t apply to science criticism. Science criticism and art criticism are distinct and not comparable. Art is unconstrained – an artist can imagine whatever they want and depict and/or “explain” it through they’s preferred medium. Science is constrained by data and the number of ways data can be sensibly “depicted” or explained are limited – though they may not always be known. Also, no one work of art can objectively be better than another. But in science one scientific hypothesis *can* be objectively better than another. In fact that’s the entire goal of the enterprise – to generate objectively better explanations for natural phenomena. Finally, while any given work of art – a novel, a sculpture or a painting – is eternal and unchanging, a scientific hypothesis is a communal work that evolves to become objectively better precisely because of criticism.

  7. Ed says:

    For an opposing point of view that seems fairly reputable, see the start of the essay “A Mathematician’s Apology” by Hardy.

  8. Seems related to the issue of deciding what to doubt – being able to doubt profitably is a highly valuable skill in science but (as CS Peirce put it) a skill that is very hard to develop.

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