This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at Oscar Wilde’s ideas of criticism and how it can become an art form of its own.
If you happened to see The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound at the Guthrie this March, you know how easily theater criticism can go awry and make it only too easy to poke fun at it. But put this behind for a moment and instead regard the critic differently – for instance, from the view of Oscar Wilde.
I am unabashedly an Oscar Wilde fan. One of my favorite works of his (aside from the brilliance that is The Importance of Being Earnest) is The Critic as an Artist, an essay written as a dialogue between two men. In it, Gilbert and Earnest discuss whether or not artists should pay any mind to critics and what the whole point of judging art is. Earnest argues that art was best when there were no critics, while Gilbert says there have always been critics, explaining how ancient Greece was a society of critics that recognized “the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety.” Criticism from one’s self and others, in Gilbert’s view, allows for artists to find new ways to create and recreate while critics “record one’s own soul” by sharing their own impressions. Art becomes part of one’s personal experiences and can be enjoyed beyond what makes it technically great or meet’s someone else’s expectations.
Gilbert continues to describe the art of criticism, stating that “the actor is the critic of drama,” taking a writer’s work, studying and analyzing it and making it their own in their performance. Works of art are living things and, by interacting with them, we change them and allow ourselves opportunities to grow and complicate ourselves. For Gilbert, art is universal, not just for specialists. In fact, Gilbert argues that great artists cannot really judge their work or the work of others because of their vision. It is better then to be an outside observer who is passionate but not a part of the creation process. There’s a lot of truth to this and some fallacies – I personally think artists make great critics, though there are instances where they can get hung up on certain aspects because of the work they do. Likewise, misunderstandings from outside observers can occur because they don’t know the depth and work put into an artist process. However, in Gilbert’s world where art is universal, it seems there would be better communication about the creative process and the amount of effort put into artist endeavor would not be overlooked.
Then again, Oscar Wilde isn’t concerned about effort and work levels maintained by artists the way my Marxist (i.e.: class)-tuned brain is (which thanks to my undergraduate degree, it’s a frequency I’m always tuned to). Oscar Wilde was quite the dandy and a hedonist. He focused greatly on aestheticism and the beauty of things over the socio-political importance. Much of his ideas of criticism are contemplating the aesthetic qualities of art. However, his arguments work to support the importance of the ephemeral, so to speak, and the socio-political and deeper humanitarian qualities that make art great, whether he likes it or not. Wilde’s ideas still hold up, even for Marxist theory (“Art is for everyone!” especially). I rather hope that he’d appreciate me taking his ideas and creating new concepts with them, rather than being upset for re-appropriating his ideas to philosophies he had nothing to do with.
Of course the real question about Wilde is does he care so much about aesthetics because people think it’s frivolous and therefore unintelligent and unimportant and is arguing otherwise, or does he really only care about that because he’s a dandy? Or both, because people can be contradictory? I vote for both. Regardless, his writing allows us as artists and critics to reevaluate how we see and interact with the art that is so much a part of our lives. It speaks to the communication between artist and audiences that I strive for and breaks down the pinnacle we place both artists (in terms of perfection) and critics (in terms of being the ultimate source of opinion in art). Plus this piece is full of some of Wilde’s best quotes:
- “Any idea that is not dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea at all.”
- “What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”
- “Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
So if you’re looking for a quick, clever read, I highly recommend this. It celebrates art, the creators of it, and the observers of it in the best of ways and allows for a lot of thought, discussion, disagreement, and growth.