Oscar Wilde – “The Critic as Artist” (1891)

Another socratic dialogue, this time between Gilbert (the smart progressive one) and Ernest (the not so bright dullard). Gilbert argues for the relevance of criticism, claiming that there have been critical ages without creativity, but never a creative age without criticism; because criticism and self-consciousness are one. The critic’s relation to art is the same as that between the artist and the real world. We need both. Yet criticism does not need to be directed solely at an object. It’s purest form is subjective: directed at the self: it “seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another” (1028). Thus criticism takes on its own aesthetic beauty as it unfurls its own opposition between subject and object. The Critic’s job is to see in the object what the object is not: the non-identical fragment is nothing other than inexpressible, non-signifying Beauty. (1030).

The second part deals with the relationship between aesthetic and ethics. Aesthetic is higher than ethics, because the latter is merely the precondition for the former. He draws an explicit connection to Darwin’s division between natural and sexual selection. Relate this to Mill. Thus the role of the critic is both ethical and aesthetic. Slightly revising Arnold (who says that criticism shapes the intellectual atmosphere of the age) Wilde argues that it also fine tunes one’s intellectual capacity. Criticism is the means by which “Humanity can become conscious of the point at which it has arrived” (1055). It makes us cosmopolitan, etc.


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