Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1891) - extract.

[Source: Intentions (1891), rep. in The Works of Oscar Wilde [Golden Heritage Authors] (London: Galley Press [W. H. Smith] 1987), pp.984-998; this extract, pp.965-67.]

[ See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Authors > Classic”, via index, or attached. ]

Gilbert: But surely Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistsic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is realy cretive in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.

Ernest. Independent?

Gilbert. Yes; independent. Criticism is no more to be judged b y any low standard of imitationi or resemblance than is the work of the [965] poet or sculptor. The 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. He does not even require for the perfection of his art the finest materials. Anything will serve his purpose. And just as out of the sordid and sentimental amours of the silly wife of a small country doctor in the squalid village of Yonville-l’Abbaye, near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert was able to create a classic, and make a masterpiece of style, so, from subjects of little or of no importance, such as the pictures in this year’s Royal Academy, or in any year’s Royal Academy for that matter, Mr. Lewis Morris’s poems, M. Ohnet’s novels, or the plays of Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, the true critic can, if it be his pleasure so to direct or waste his faculty of contemplation, produce work that will be flawless in beauty and instinct with intellectual subtlety. Why not ? Dullness is always an irresistible temptation for brilliancy, and stupidity is the permanent Bestia Trionfans that calls wisdom from its cave. To an artist so creative as the critic, what does subject-matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives everywhere. Treatment is the test. There is nothing that has not in it suggestion or challenge.

Ernest: But is Criticism really a creative art?

Gilbert : Why should it not be? It works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry ? Indeed, I would call criticism a creation within a creation. For just as the great artists, from Homer and Æschylus, down to Shakespeare and Keats, did not go directly to life for their subject-matter, but sought for it in myth, and legend, and ancient tale, so the critic, deals with materials that others have, as it were, purified for him, and to which imaginative form and colour have been already added. Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and, as the Greeks would put it, in itself, and to itself, end. Certainly, it is never trammelled by any shackles of verisimilitude. No ignoble considerations of probability, that cowardly concession to the tedious, repetitions of domestic or public life, effect it ever. One may appeal from fiction unto fact. But from the soul there is no appeal.

Ernest: From the soul?

Gilbert: Yes, from the soul. That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilised form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind. I am always amused [966] by the silly vanity of those writers and artists of our who seem to imagine that the primary function of the critic is to chatter about their second-rate work. The best that one can say of most modes creative art is that it is just a little less vulgar than reality, and so the critic, with his fine sense of distinction and sure instinct of delicate refinement, will prefer to look into the silver mirror or through the woven veil, and will turn his eyes away from the chaos and clamor, of actual existence, though the mirror be tarnished and the veil be torn. His sole aim is to chronicle his own impressions. It is for him that pictures are painted, books written, and marble hewn into form.

Ernest: I seem to have heard another theory of Criticism.

Gilbert: Yes; it has been said by one whose gracious mentor we all revere, and the music of whose pipe once lured Proserpina frog her Sicilian folds, and made those white feet stir, and not in vain, the Cumnor cowslips, that the proper aim of Criticism is to see the object as in itself it really is. But this is a very serious error, and takes no cognizanceof Criticism’s most perfect form, which is in its essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret f another. For the highest Criticism deals with art not as expressive but as impressive purely.

Ernest: But is that really so?

Gilbert: Of course it is. Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? [...]

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