Sunday, October 16, 2011

“All Art is Useless”

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin on this day in 1854. He is well known for his brilliance, a life lived large, his wonderful plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest, and for a single novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which was published in 1890.

The Writer’s Almanac remembers Wilde today, reminding us that in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote:
“All art is quite useless.”

A student at Oxford named Bernulf Clegg was intrigued by that statement, and he wrote to Wilde and asked him what he meant by it.

Wilde responded:

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realize the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde
Writer’s Almanac points out that it is also the birthday of Gunter Grass (1927) and Eugene O'Neill (1888). You can read more about them here.



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