‘Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.’

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'Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.'

The study of the life and work of Oscar Wilde -the married homosexual, the Protestant Anglo-Irishman with Nationalist and Catholic sympathies- is characterised by his most famous literary device, the paradox, and nowhere is this more true than in his attitude to art. He was an aesthete who worshipped the cult of beauty and strove to live his life artistically yet he was unable to realise these high ideals in either his work or his life, inextricably linked as they were. Art was certainly the serious guiding principle in the life of Wilde the artist, but he compromised his aesthetic principles by his human inability to keep it, and thus himself, detached from serious ideas.

On arriving in England, Wilde was initially seduced by the Oxford Aesthetes, who at that time were heavily inspired by the pre-Raphelite and Christian enthusiasms of Ruskin, and by his idea that art should remain true to nature. However, he soon fell under the more Decadent influence of his tutor, the German and Greek philosophy don Walter Pater, who had already published a number of essays on the subject of art, including one in 1866 in which he publicly declared his renunciation of Christianity in favour of 'a religion of art'1. Pater proposed in his collection of essays Studies in the History of the Renaissance2 that young men ought to actively seek out sensation and 'great passions'3 and cultivate Romantically heightened sensibilities in the pursuit of aesthetic experience, advocating that they ought to 'get as many pulsations as possible into the given time'4. Wilde later described the work as 'the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty' and, in the same letter, as having had 'such a strange influence over my life'5 and it seems likely that he saw it as his own equivalent of Dorian Gray's fatal book.

Adopting Pater's neo-pagan artistic creed inevitably led Wilde to take art very seriously indeed; he saw his role as an artist as a vocation that he must struggle to live up to, conforming both his life and his work to the aesthetic ideals of beauty, and art for art's sake. Art was an 'exaggeration' of life, a more wonderful, intense version that life in turn sought to imitate, and ideally it was as abstract and independent of reality as possible, beauty being far preferable to naturalism. Art was superior because whilst the occasional pallid beauties of life are transient and necessarily unique, 'there is no mood of passion that art cannot give us, and those of us who have discovered her secret can settle beforehand what our experiences are going to be' (The Critic as Artist page 992)6, art thus being far more convenient and reliable

ERNEST: Life then is a failure?

GILBERT: From the artistic point of view certainly (The Critic as Artist page 992).

This freedom to experience noble and great passions through art without truly engaging with the emotions brings man closer to the aesthetic ideal, for real grief is bitter and thus is 'a passage to a lesser perfection' (The Critic as Artist page 993) as it mars the personality, whereas art 'shield[s us]...from the sordid perils of actual existence' and therefore it is 'through art, and through art only, that we can realise our perfection'. Art itself is 'emotion for the sake of emotion' and therefore an important tool in Pater's idea of the pursuit of sensation and excellence, as well as, as such, beautifully useless.
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Wilde's theory of art considered it as so ideally abstract and divorced from reality as to be entirely free from the norms of ethics, morality and other concerns of squalid life

As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affect us in any way...or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. (The Decay of Lying p.927).

However, although he wrote about this at length in his critical essays, he found such a doctrine impossible ...

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