Saturday, February 23, 2013

Art vs. Art

The title itself illustrates Oscar Wilde's goal in his essay, The Critic as Artist. He wants to promote the critic as an artist; he wants to show that criticism is an art. This point is valid and he argues it well. He goes further, however, than "the critic as artist": Wilde asserts that criticism is in fact the "highest art" and that, "It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it."

Wilde argues that art is more difficult to write about than to create. Writing about a painting is much more difficult than actually painting it; writing about poetry is more difficult than writing the poem; writing about music is more difficult that mastering the instrument. Wilde goes beyond criticism as an art and compares it with other art forms, asserting it is the highest art, and though he argues well with thought-out opinions and strong evidence, it is here that his argument fails.

Wilde has various sections that supports his point well. He talks about how art becomes immortal not by the talent of the artist but rather by the talent of the critic: the way the critic reacts to and writes about it. He argues that art is not beautiful because of the hand of the artist, but rather the eyes of the beholder: it is how people talk about a piece of art, how they perceive it, that makes it beautiful. And it is the critic that nudges the beholder about how to feel. The critic "treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new creation" and "the highest Criticism, then, is more creative than the creation..."

Wilde also argues that the symbols and meaning behind art is prescribed completely by the critic and beholder, not the artist. This argument also has merit. The deep symbolism we give the road, the changing environment, bugs, farming in Grapes of Wrath  is probably much more detailed than Steinbeck's thought-process as he was writing it. The Mona Lisa has become a symbol of eternity; she has watched history with the wise eyes of someone who never dies or is always dead, all with a small smile, as if she knows what is to come. But how likely is it that Leonardo da Vinci had all of this in mind when painting? In this way, it is the critic that gives a piece of art meaning--that makes it beautiful and and immortal--and that in itself is an art.

The assertion that criticism is the highest art, however, is flawed. Wilde's title portrays he main argument, his most important point: the Critic as Artist. He wants to show how criticism is an art, and he does so. But with that argument you cannot then argue that it is a better art, a more difficult art, a higher art. We cannot argue that one form of art is better than another. Paintings are not better than music; music is not better than poetry; poetry is not better than photography; photography is not better than criticism; criticism is not better than painting. It is impossible to place one art form above another because art is subjective.

Art is all about what each individual prefers; what speaks to each of us. Criticism is an art. So is painting and poetry and music. All art forms influence each other, make each other better, make each other grow, each from their own platform. They cannot compete with one other. Instead, they complement one another, making art better, more interesting, more controversial, more beautiful.

True, painting as art would not exist without criticism. But Mr. Wilde, criticism would not exist without painting.

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