Letter to a Young Art Student | Philosophy Podcast

Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from a lecture that Oscar Wilde delivered to art students in 1883…..

Today, I do not desire to give you any abstract definition of beauty. For we who are working in art cannot accept any theory of beauty in exchange for beauty itself, and, rather than desiring to isolate it in a formula appealing to the intellect, we, on the contrary, seek to materialize it in a form that gives joy to the soul through the senses. We want to create art, 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: for you will be 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 do is investigate how we can create art, not how we can talk about it – on the other hand, I do have a few words to say about the art of a nation.

To begin with, phrases like English art and American art are meaningless expressions. One might just as well talk of English or American mathematics. Art is the science of beauty, and Mathematics the science of truth: there is no national school of either. Nor is there any such thing as a school of art even. There are merely artists, that is all.

And as regards to the history of art, this is quite valueless to you unless you are seeking the ostentatious oblivion of being an art professor. It is of no use to you to know the birthday of Da Vinci or that Picasso loved bull fighting: all that you should learn about art is to know a good painting when you see it, and a bad painting when you see it.

Forget about the so called periods of modern art, all good work looks perfectly modern: a piece of Greek sculpture, a portrait of the Madonna – they are always modern, always of our time. And as regards the nationality of the artist, art is not national but universal. Avoid the phrase “modern art” altogether: modern art 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 they do return, their heads are so filled with intellectual claptrap, that they are quite unrecognizable as an artist, and have to conceal themselves for the rest of their days under the cap of a professor. How worthless (quote) “modern art” is, you can estimate by the fact of it 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? My intention is to discuss what makes an artist and what does the artist make; what are the relations of the artist to his or her surroundings; what kind of education should the artist get; and what is the quality of a good work of art.

Now, with regards the relations of the artist to their surroundings, by which I mean the age and country in which they are born. All good art, as I said before, has nothing to do with any particular century. But while this universality is the quality of good works of art; the conditions that produce that quality are different. What, I think, you should therefore do is to realize completely the age in which you live, in order completely to abstract yourself from it; remembering that if you are an artist at all, you will not be the mouthpiece of a century, but the master of eternity; and that those who advise you to make your art representative of the early 21st century are advising you to produce an art which your children, when you have them, will think old-fashioned.

Many people will argue that we are living now an inartistic age; that we are an inartistic people; and that the artist suffers much in this 21st century of ours. And of course, they are right. But remember that there never has been an artistic age, or an artistic people, since the beginning of time. The artist has always been, and will always be, an exquisite exception. There is no golden age of art; only artists who have produced what is more golden than gold.

Perhaps, you will tell me that the external beauty of the world has almost entirely passed away from us, that the artist dwells no longer in the midst of the lovely surroundings which, in ages past, were the natural inheritance of every one. And that art is very difficult in these unlovely cities of ours, where, as you go to your work in the morning, or return from it in the evening, you have to pass through street after street of the most foolish and stupid architecture that the world has ever seen; and when you turn to contemplate the street itself, you have nothing to look at all which might ignite the imagination.

Is not art difficult, you will say to me, in such surroundings as these? Of course it is difficult, but then art was never easy; you yourselves would not wish it to be easy; and, besides, nothing is worth doing except what the world says is impossible.

Still, I know that you do not care to be answered merely by a paradox. What are the relations of the artist to the external world, and what is the result of the loss of beautiful surroundings, is one of the most important questions that you, as an artist, will face today.

Some art critics say that the decadence of today’s art has come from the decadence of beautiful things; and that when artists cannot feed their eyes on beauty, beauty goes from their work. They say that to look at the depressing, monotonous appearance of any modern city, the slavish dress of men and women, the meaningless and barren architecture, the colorless and dreadful surroundings, and one cannot help but feel that without a beautiful national life, all the arts will die.

But is it really true that beautiful surroundings are necessary for the artist? I think not; I am sure not. Indeed, to me the most inartistic thing in this age of ours is not the indifference of the public to beautiful things, but the indifference of the artist to the things that are called ugly. For, to the real artist, nothing is beautiful or ugly in itself at all.

Appearance is, in fact, a matter of effect merely, and it is with the effects of nature that you have to deal, not with the real condition of the object. What you, as artists, have to paint is not things as they are but things as they seem to be, or are not.

No object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful. Likewise, no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly. I believe that in every twenty-four hours what is beautiful looks ugly, and what is ugly looks beautiful, at least once.

Do not wait for life to be picturesque, but try and see life under picturesque conditions. These conditions you can create for yourself in your studio, for they are merely conditions of light. In nature, you must wait for them, watch for them, choose them; and, if you wait and watch, come they will.

To paint what you see is a good rule in art, but to see what is worth painting is better. See life under pictorial conditions. It is better to live in a city of changeable weather than in a city of lovely surroundings.

Now, having seen what makes the artist, and what the artist makes, who is the artist? The artist is one who strives to unite in themselves all the qualities of the noblest arts, whose work is a joy for all time, who is, themselves, a master of time.

And what is a painting? A painting is merely a beautifully colored surface, with no more spiritual message or meaning for you than an exquisite fragment of Venetian glass or a blue tile from the wall of Damascus. It is, primarily, a purely decorative thing, a delight to look at.

All modern paintings that make you say ‘How curious!’ All sentimental paintings that make you say, ‘How sad!’ All historical paintings that make you say ‘How interesting!’ All paintings that do not immediately give you such artistic joy as to make you say ‘How beautiful!’ are bad paintings.

We never know what an artist is going to do. The artist is not a specialist. All such divisions as animal painters, landscape painters, painters of still life, portrait painters, religious painters are shallow. If you are an artist, you can paint everything.

The object of art is to stir the most divine and remote of the chords which make music in our soul; and color is indeed, of itself a mystical presence on things, and tone a kind of sentinel. Am I pleading, then, for mere technique? No. As long as there are any signs of technique at all, the painting is unfinished.

A painting is finished only when all traces of work, and of the means employed to bring about the result, have disappeared. In the case of the crafts person, such as the weaver or potter, there are traces of their hand on their work. But it is not so with the painter; it is not so with the artist.

Art should have no sentiment about it but its beauty, no technique except what you cannot observe. One should be able to say of a picture not that it is ‘well painted,’ but that it is ‘not painted.’

A painting has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy. That is the first truth about art that you must never, ever lose sight of….

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