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Friday, June 19, 2009

"The Soul of Man Under Socialism"

In this essay, Oscar Wilde makes a case for a socialism that will liberate man and cause him to be more productive and creative. Nevertheless, Wilde was not trying to issue a political treatise; instead, he was writing from the perspective of an artist wanting the utmost control over his work. He begins making his case by stating that the principal benefit that socialism bestows on mankind is that it would "relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others." (p. 19)

One area in which he applies this statement is in the area of art (that being visual as well as literary arts). Wilde believes that the public has no right to dictate how an artist produces his work. He even goes so far as to say that "public opinion is of no value whatsoever." (p. 29) The reason Wilde gives is that art should not be adapted but people should adapt themselves to art. Art should come from the experience of the artist not from the popular sentiment. Wilde describes the relationship between art and the public thus:

"If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive." (p. 43)

Art is most productive by the artist and of the most value to the public when the latter allows the work of art to shape him instead of trying to shape the work or the artist's subject matter. Wilde believes that truly valuable art is that which is not popular because most of the public cannot detect the intrinsic value of the work in question. This sentiment is the basic philosophy of the Aesthetes, a group to which Wilde belonged, who adopted the doctrine "art for art's sake," believing that art existed for the perfection of the technique, not for outside criticism.

Wilde identifies those contemporaries that he believes have transcended public opinion as well as those who have been shaped by it. In Henry Esmond, William Thackeray produced "a beautiful work of art because he wrote it to please himself," though in other works Thackeray was "too conscious of the public, and spoil(ed) his work by appealing directly to the sympathies of the public, or by directly mocking at them." On the other hand, George Meredith "has never asked the public what they wanted, has never cared to know what they wanted, has never allowed the public to dictate to him or influence him in any way but has gone on intensifying his own personality, and producing his own individual work." (p. 44-45) Though not popular at first, Meredith receives Wilde's praise because he did not adapt his style to public opinion.

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