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Preface

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s
aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another
manner or a new material his impression of beautiful
things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism
is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things
are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in
beautiful things are the cultivated. For
these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean
only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or
an immoral book. Books are well written, or
badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage
of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of
romanticism is the rage of Caliban not
seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject
matter of the artist, but the morality of art
consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things
that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical
sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable
mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist
can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist
instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials
for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the
arts is the art of the musician. From the point of
view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and
symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at
their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows
that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord
with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as
long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for
making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.


An inescapable determinant of whether I savor a work of art is whether it can challenge my preconceptions of what can be artistically achieved. In light of this, the works of art that I appreciate most deeply are either aesthetically or intellectually inspiring.

My favorite pieces of art are usually inspiring in both ways. But this is not always true. In the case of Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set, for instance, which I wrote about here, I am quite fond of how intellectually engaging a piece of art lacking aesthetic beauty can be. In my view, a piece of art need not be aesthetically pleasing to be considered artistic.

Wilde’s preface, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of aesthetic beauty in the arts. The cultivated among us, in this context, are those who can find beautiful, rather than ugly meanings in beautiful things. The elect, among those who are cultivated, are those to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

Literary scholars have argued that Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, is an excellent encapsulation of the principles of Aestheticism, a 19th century art movement which stressed the importance of aesthetic values before socio-political themes.

The preface ends in an incitation: “All art is quite useless.” It’s certainly an inflammatory remark, one which should prompt us to consider whether usefulness is a necessary characteristic of artistic ventures.

See you next week!

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