The Critic as Artist | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Critic as Artist | Context


Art Criticism

Writing about art was a viable profession by the end of the 19th century. Writers penned gallery guides and translations of foreign art treatises into English in addition to writing critiques. An important development in art writing was the addition of illustrations that corresponded with the articles and essays. By the 1890s readers could envision the exhibitions in London through what they read in the newspapers and enjoy the full-page prints that accompanied the articles. During this time critics shifted their focus from traditional art to more experimental art. They embraced avant-garde art with its new and experimental ideas. The reverence for avant-garde art in critical circles remains intact today.

In The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde extolls the virtues of the art of critique and posits that critique is an art form in itself. He also claims that it is the most difficult art to create. Wilde worked as a freelance reviewer of books and art in the beginning of his career, often reviewing the works of his contemporaries such as Robert Louis Stevenson's (1850–94) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

1890s English Theater

The 1890s in English theater was known for bringing the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) to Britain, the ascending career of Irish comedic dramatist George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), the predominance of the works of Arthur Wing Pinero (1859–1934) and Henry Arthur Jones (1851–1929), and the short but brilliant career of Oscar Wilde. The 1890s saw the wane of the Victorian theatrical tradition which was characterized by extreme realism and historical accuracy and the rise of the modern dramatic theater which rebelled against the realism of the Victorian era. Even realist writers like Ibsen turned toward symbolism in their plays by the end of the 19th century.

Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Wing Pinero, and Henry Arthur Jones were Wilde's contemporaries and George Bernard Shaw was his good friend. Wilde himself was one of the writers who rebelled against Victorian realism and encouraged artists to move away from the confines of realistic portrayal in art toward the more symbolic and the avant-garde.

In the only stage directions written in The Critic as Artist, Wilde informs the reader that the scene takes place in the library of a house located in Piccadilly and overlooking the Green Park. The focus of the play is on the substance of the dialogue and of the ideas put forth about art, critique, and aesthetics. This focus on dialogue and ideas is a departure from the focus on hyper-realistic sets and backgrounds that characterized Victorian-era plays. Oscar Wilde helped usher in the modern era of theater which was characterized by experimentation and symbolism.

Late 19th-century London

In the 1890s Oscar Wilde lived in London, England, which was the capital of the largest empire in the world at that time. It was a city of commerce and a center for manufacturing where 79% of the population belonged to the working class. There was a great deal of poverty and crime and London was "infamously filthy." The city was often covered in dense sooty fog, the Thames River was riddled with human sewage, and the streets were filled with manure from the thousands of workhorses in London. There was massive civil unrest among the jobless and underemployed population during the 1880s as a result of these conditions.

London was a city of literature, science, and art despite the poverty among the masses. There were new, impressive buildings dedicated to the arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries including theaters, Houses of Parliament, and museums. London was a place where Wilde could thrive with its proliferation of theaters and focus on literature and art. Wilde lauded the idea of art for art's sake and expounds on it in The Critic as Artist where the character Gilbert discusses the importance of being surrounded by grace and beauty. The new, impressive buildings that were dedicated to the arts during his lifetime were in keeping with Wilde's philosophy about the necessity of art and the importance of aesthetics.

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