What Was Wilde Talking About?

Art is useless.

This is the beginning of a response letter from Oscar Wilde to a fan following the publication of his successful and equally controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. These words can be found as the tagline for individuals who are anti-literature, pro-censorship, and even anti-English major; it succinctly reflects a belief in a way only an author could have produced (wherein lies a great sticking point). It is a hotly refuted notion by bookworms and scholars alike.

But was Wilde… right?

To understand the quote wholly is to find it in context. Below is the entire transcript of the response letter Wilde wrote. In the original letter, his young fan asked Wilde to explain why he included in the preface of Dorian Gray the words “All art is quite useless.”

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 realise 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

There’s much more there than “art is useless,” that’s for sure. And even with this all written, he still says “the subject is a long one.”

What Wilde is saying really speaks to what literature really is about… or really is not about. Wilde seems to understand literature as something to create a mood, and any other findings or ends from literature are, as he would call them, misuses.

So Wilde is not wrong… just not wholly right.

Maybe his intentions for his works are simply to create a mood, but I doubt individuals like Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe felt their jobs were done once the audience felt a mood. To describe all authors and artists as having the sole intent to set a mood, and/or to say that all readers sit down to feel anything is to minimize the power of art. Furthermore, to try and boil down art to a simple tagline or formula of existence seems to prove impossible.

In closing, to continue the discussion of what literature’s purpose is, what art’s purpose is, is to open up the very world in which anyone who has ever read a book exists. Scholars, English majors, and kids reading Curious George and Clifford for the first time. It is to open up that which constitutes our existence. If art creates a mood, and if this is art, then I hope you’re now thoughtful…

but I hope your journey doesn’t stop here.

Source of transcript and information: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/01/art-is-useless-because.html

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