25 March 2017

Wilde's 'Critic as Artist'

Is the artist the best critic of art? Who else is to be the proper critic of art in all its various forms? Oscar Wilde pursues these questions with intensity in his noteworthy bipartite dialogical essay, 'The Critic as Artist', published in 1891. Ernest is the interrogator of Gilbert, who enlightens Ernest about the meaning of criticism. Here a few selected excerpts:

"ERNEST:  [...] Each art must appeal primarily to the artist who works in it. His judgment will surely be the most valuable?
GILBERT: [...]   so far from its being true that the artist is the best judge of art, a really great artist can never judge of other people's work at all, and can hardly, in fact, judge of his own. That very concentration of vision that makes a man an artist, limits by its sheer intensity his faculty of fine appreciation.  [...]  Creation employs all its critical faculty within its own sphere. It may not use it in the sphere that belongs to others. It is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it."

If, then, the artist himself is not the proper critic of art, who is? Ernest had already asked beforehand:

"ERNEST. But where in this is the function of the critical spirit?
GILBERT: [...]   the contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming — that is what the critical spirit can give us.  [...] To us, at any rate, the _BIOS THEORAETIKOS_ is the true ideal. From the high tower of Thought we can look out at the world. [...] The aim of art is simply to create a mood. Is such a mode of life unpractical? Ah! it is not so easy to be unpractical as the ignorant Philistine imagines. It were well for England if it were so."

'Contemplation' is a traditional translation of Greek _theoria_ (from _theorein_ 'to view, to contemplate') which, in Aristotle, is synonymous with philosophy, and in this dialogue Wilde refers both to Plato and especially Aristotle's Poetics as primary sources for his reflections on criticism, e.g.:

"GILBERT: [...]    It may be that it is as a critic of Beauty that Plato is destined to live, and that by altering the name of the sphere of his speculation we shall find a new philosophy. But Aristotle, like Goethe, deals with art primarily in its concrete manifestations, taking Tragedy, for instance, and investigating the material it uses, which is language, its subject-matter, which is life, the method by which it works, which is action, the conditions under which it reveals itself, which are those of theatric presentation, its logical structure, which is plot, and its final aesthetic appeal, which is to the sense of beauty realized through the passions of pity and awe."

Is it a question of Beauty with a capital B, of philosophical aesthetics, today? No matter. It is clear that Wilde is returning to the Greeks for orientation:

"GILBERT: [...]   For, after all, what is our primary debt to the Greeks? Simply the critical spirit."

And today? What philosophical Geist is to criticize art contemplatively? From what kind of philosophical thinking do today's artists take an orientation, if they seek a philosophical orientation at all? Don't both artists and art critics alike today orient themselves primarily within the historical trends of a particular genre? If the aim of art is "simply to create a mood", which moods of today's Zeit-Geist are the ones seeking an artistic form, and are artists at all aware of them?

"GILBERT: [...]   Creation is always behind the age. It is Criticism that leads us. The Critical Spirit and the World-Spirit are one."

Today's prevailing, barren philosophy, that proceeds from the unquestioned presupposition of the encapsulated conscious subject vis-à-vis an external objective world, is hardly resonating with the Welt-Geist and capable of providing orientation to artistic creation. On the contrary, it is itself entangled in the endless, inane ping-pong of subjective vs. objective. Is contemporary art, independently of today's impoverished philosophy, attuned to the Welt-Geist and able to creatively catch its moods? Or, lacking leadership as never before, has art lost its way too?

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