Oscar Wilde: What is the Use of Art?
Oscar Wilde, in his short ‘Preface to the Picture of Dorian Grey’, outlines an aesthetic view of art, that “all art is quiet useless”. This view rests on the idea that an “artist is only the creator of beautiful things” and that it serves no purpose except to be beautiful and by being beautiful, entertain our “intense admiration”.
Wilde’s positions for viewing art in a merely aesthetic way is captured in his argument that a book, as work of art, is neither “moral or immoral”; that “vice and virtue” are merely the subject matter of art, but that art itself is only something useless but “beautiful”; something that only serves to entertain our “intense admiration”. Wilde argues that any judgment about the moral value of art is merely an “autobiographic” projection; a “reflection of the spectator” and not of the work of art itself: in essence, that books are in fact only either well written, or badly written.
Matthew Arnold, in his essay ‘Sweetness and Light’ would argue that Wilde’s Aesthetic arguments that “art is useless” and only serves to entertain our “intense admiration” is founded on a dim definition of art and culture as merely the objects of “frivolous and unedifying” “intellectual curiosity”.
Arnold would argue that art and culture are not things created to be merely beautiful and satisfy our “curiosity” in a disparaging sense of “intellectual curiosity”, but rather Art and Culture have their “origin in the love of perfection; and the study of perfection” and that by pursuing art and culture we are attempting to make the “perfect prevail”: “broadening intellectual horizons” and perfecting the “moral and social character” of culture.
In this way Arnold is arguing that Art and Culture, as the “pursuit of perfection” does in fact have a use in the “general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development” of individuals and humanity in general.
To this Oscar Wilde might reply with a Utilitarian argument that, practically and materially speaking, culture as the “pursuit of perfection” “is useless” in comparison with more general economic “utility”; for example building the millennium dome, at the cost of millions, would have an opportunity cost of building schools, improving welfare services, or the general infrastructure of society. In this way the cultural and artistic “pursuit of perfection” “looks selfish, petty and unprofitable” in comparison with the broader pursuit of utility.
Arnold would counter that “Greatness is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest, and admiration”, that seen from the point of view of the eternal and universal, rather than the temporal and every day point of view, if “England was swallowed up by the sea”, England’s greatness would be measured by her cultural and artistic legacy rather then her meaningless material and economic legacy like her “coal or iron making”.
In Conclusion, Wilde is more concerned with the appreciation of art rather than its consequences of Culture, as Arnold is. Their arguments are both valid: art is both useless and useful depending on what context it is seen in.
Wilde, Oscar, Preface to the Picture of Dorian Grey: http://www.hoboes.com/FireBlade/Fiction/Wilde/dorian/preface/
Arnold, Matthew, ‘Sweetness and Light’
Williams, Raymond. Key Words. NewYork: Oxford UP, 1983