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.

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