Lecture to Art Students. Oscar Wilde
IN the lecture which it is my privilege to deliver before you to –
night I do not desire to give you any abstract definition of beauty
at all. For we who are working in art cannot accept any theory of
beauty in exchange for beauty itself, and, so far from desiring to
isolate it in a formula appealing to the intellect, we, on the
contrary, seek to materialise it in a form that gives joy to the
soul through the senses. We want to create it, not to define it.
The definition should follow the work: the work should not adapt
itself to the definition.
Nothing, indeed, is more dangerous to the young artist than any
conception of ideal beauty: he is constantly led by it either into
weak prettiness or lifeless abstraction: whereas to touch the
ideal at all you must not strip it of vitality. You must find it
in life and re-create it in art.
While, then, on the one hand I do not desire to give you any
philosophy of beauty – for, what I want to-night is to investigate
how we can create art, not how we can talk of it – on the other
hand, I do not wish to deal with anything like a history of English
To begin with, such an expression as English art is a meaningless
expression. One might just as well talk of English mathematics.
Art is the science of beauty, and Mathematics the science of truth:
there is no national school of either. Indeed, a national school
is a provincial school, merely. Nor is there any such thing as a
school of art even. There are merely artists, that is all.
And as regards histories of art, they are quite valueless to you
unless you are seeking the ostentatious oblivion of an art
professorship. It is of no use to you to know the date of Perugino
or the birthplace of Salvator Rosa: all that you should
about art is to know a good picture when you see it, and a bad
picture when you see it. As regards the date of the artist, all
good work looks perfectly modern: a piece of Greek sculpture, a
portrait of Velasquez – they are always modern, always of our
time. And as regards the nationality of the artist, art is not
national but universal. As regards archaeology, then, avoid it
altogether: archaeology is merely the science of making excuses
for bad art; it is the rock on which many a young artist founders
and shipwrecks; it is the abyss from which no artist, old or young,
ever returns. Or, if he does return, he is so covered with the
dust of ages and the mildew of time, that he is quite
unrecognisable as an artist, and has to conceal himself for the
rest of his days under the cap of a professor, or as a mere
illustrator of ancient history. How worthless archaeology is in
art you can estimate by the fact of its being so popular.
Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art.
Whatever is popular is wrong.
As I am not going to talk to you, then, about the philosophy of the
beautiful, or the history of art, you will ask me what I am going
to talk about. The subject of my lecture to-night is what makes an
artist and what does the artist make; what are the relations of the
artist to his surroundings, what is the education the artist should
get, and what is the quality of a good work of art.
Now, as regards the relations of the artist to his surroundings, by
which I mean the age and country in which he is born. All good
art, as I said before, has nothing to do with any particular