“The public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities. They use them as bludgeons for preventing the free expression of Beauty in new forms. They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist. A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions—one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. What they mean by these words seems to me to be this. When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true.” – Oscar Wilde, (from this New Yorker article)
Though I don’t believe in “newness” or “originality” I resonate with what Wilde is saying here. What we consider new or original is really just a recombination of the elements and assumptions that underlie our experience and expression of being into a form that is somewhat removed from our well-worn paths of knowing. We are uncomfortable with this reconfiguration, this reconstitution, and so we react by calling it unintelligible or immoral, as Wilde observed. I think Wilde’s greatest contribution is in his knowing and deft agitation of our assumptions about what we know, his precise jostling of our convictions of certainty. He is one of the few artists whose work I seamlessly love.
One of my fondest memories of experiencing Wilde is related to seeing the Tom Stoppard play “The Invention of Love” at the Court Theater of the University of Chicago with my wife and father in law several years ago. In it Wilde makes a striking appearance with the main character of the play A.E. Housman, on the shore of the river Styx. His teeth blackened, condemned by law and society, Wilde is an exuberant yet melancholic figure in death. Still dapper and spouting axioms, dressed in lilac and reading from his own work as Housman comes upon him in the afterlife, Stoppard’s Wilde is a revelation. The scene catalyzed my appreciation for Wilde, so I guess I have Stoppard to thank for that. Here’s a review of the play if you’re interested.