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Callum Stark’s Art History Essay

NCH London | July 26, 2019

‘Oscar Wilde claimed that ‘All art is quite useless’. Can art’s uselessness be a source of it usefulness?’

What did Wilde mean by his provocative assertion that “All art is quite useless”? At face value, a statement that is arguably one of Wilde’s most mystifying, though it typifies the late nineteenth century aesthetic movement. Indeed, it may at first be tempting to assume that Wilde was contrarily denouncing art, asserting that it was of no value, but that is the opposite to what his sentiments were.

For Wilde and the aesthetes believed that the essence of art, ideally, should be beauty and sensuality, that art should be divorced from morality and the wider cultural context. For them, the greatest crime was for art to be didactic; in fact, Wilde wrote in explanation to a curious reader, that “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”. The aesthetes’ dictum was l’art pour l’art, generally attributed to critic Théophile Gautier in 1835, meaning ‘art for art’s sake’. It was the view, at the crux of Wilde’s statement, that art is of a somehow higher power, and need satisfy no other ‘use’ than visceral aesthetic pleasure. Wilde explicated his statement, writing that “art’s pleasure is sterility”. Whilst Wilde’s view may have been apposite in the age of the aesthete, it must be questioned whether his view of art’s “sterile” domain is appropriate throughout history, pre- and post- Wilde and his epigrams.

The ambiguity of the word “useless” is perhaps, principally, what makes Wilde’s statement so complex and interesting to unpack. Care should be taken, therefore, when evaluating Wilde’s view, not to conflate uselessness in the sense of ‘lack of utility’ with uselessness in the very different sense of lack of value. As prior established, Wilde was not in any way suggesting that art was devoid of value – indeed as an aesthete he thinks the very opposite – but merely that art’s essence is not utility. Indeed, Wilde wrote that “A work of art is uselessas a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. 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.” Through this, we see that Wilde’s view, when stating that “All art is quite useless”, is not that art is devoid of use, but that any eventual uses, and all wider contexts are somehow extrinsic to the work; we can contrast art, in this essential respect, with, say, an equation or an engine, whose uses are, by their
very nature, intrinsic to thing itself. All of art’s context and ‘uses’ are pressed upon by humanity. They are no part of its “essence.”

However, whilst Wilde’s view may be less enigmatic than it first appears, being an archetypal aesthete view, it still must be questioned whether Wilde’s aesthetic conviction is universally appropriate when applied to art and its domain beyond the bubble of late nineteenth century Europe. If we look back to the beginnings in the ice age, of what is now called ‘art’, we see that it occupied perhaps the antithesis of the Aesthete view of art as having no purpose but beauty and sensuality. In places like the Lascaux Caves, some of the very earliest producers of figurative art were concerned not with aesthetics but with spiritual protection and success: Abbe Henri Breuil suggested that early producers depicted animals in hope of success in hunting, others that they were expressing their place in nature. E.H Gombrich asserted, in The Story of Art, that it can be assured that early painters did not climb into inaccessible caves merely to decorate. It can be seen through examining early art that it certainly did not fit within the aesthete understanding of art and its relationship to usefulness, that Wilde asserted.

The view of art as being without specific purpose, created solely for aesthetic and sensual gratification, is one peculiar to modern Western culture. Renaissance art, it may be thought, would be the crème de la crème of aesthetic doctrine: examples of some of the most inspired uses of paintbrush and pencil seen at any point in history. We can see, however, that for much of history, notably during the Renaissance, the vast majority of art was destined for a very distinct use: the church. Old masters could perhaps, despite the highly aestheticized nature of their work, be better described as illustrators of iconography rather than as ‘artists’. Caravaggio was tasked in 1602, with painting Saint Mathew for the Contarelli Chapel; he first depicted Saint Mathew, diverging from accepted iconography, as a weathered, ungraceful, semi-literate man, as he would have been in reality, his unsure hand being slowly guided through writing the gospel. But Caravaggio’s work was declared blasphemous and he was ordered to repaint it. This points to the role that art has occupied for much of history, with its use in fact often intrinsic to the work of art; the aesthetics inextricable from its pious purpose. We see, as with the very earliest art, a disparity here with Wilde’s expressed conviction regarding art and its purpose.

The most pertinent comparison moreover, is, perhaps, with the art directly preceding and following Wilde’s statement in 1890 that “All art is quite useless.” In the mid nineteenth Century, the Pre-Raphaelites were perhaps the artists that best fit the aesthete mould, personifying art for art’s sake. The Pre-Raphaelites’ doctrine was based partly upon a radical opposition to the popular school of ‘genre painting’, depicting mundane, domestic scenes: anathema to the aesthetes. They, and in particular Dante Gabriel Rossetti, were concerned with pure, often fantastical, beauty in art. With their offerings divorced from the moral and political grounding that characterised much mid-19 th century art. However, whilst the Pre- Rapehlites did indeed fit Wilde’s aesthetic theory, his view that art should be nothing more or less than beautiful, by contrast the decades following Wilde’s death in 1900 represented a radical departure in art. Less than a year after Wilde’s death, Picasso began his Blue Period, producing an oeuvre which, in relation to l’art pour l’art, could be interpreted in multiple ways. Picasso’s works from this period could be viewed as in complete opposition to Wilde’s view of art and its domain, being charged with emotional narrative and deeper meaning. However, its form of high emotion represented through a highly stylised and detached mode of painting, could also be viewed as highly in keeping with Wilde’s views and aesthetic belief. Furthermore, little fifty years after Wilde’s death and the demise of aestheticism, Pop Art exploded onto the scene. Again, Pop Art could be seen as in complete antithesis to Aestheticism, based as it was upon opposing themes of media, celebrity and consumerism, with its utilitarian production further compounding this view.

Evidently, Wilde’s statement provides a rich point of debate on the ideal nature and role of art, though ultimately shows, simply, its ever-mobile nature: gaining not only altered expression but altered relevance with each year, generation and indeed millennium. Those earliest producers of art have in common elements of aesthetics, yet perhaps not purpose, with artists of today. The Old Masters of the Renaissance, pillars of art history, were working under a radically different doctrine to the artists of centuries to come, and poignantly we can see that art was developing perhaps at its fastest pace during the half-centuries before and after Wilde’s death. At the crux is the unavoidable, indefinable nature of art and its wider effects therein. The final words of Wilde’s letter of explanation for his statement “All art is quite useless”, do indeed distil the nature of the question posed “All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.”

Callum Stark

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