Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Oscar Wilde, from "The Soul of Man"

(this specific quote brought to my attention by an 8/8/11 New Yorker review of a variety of Wilde biographies)

The public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities. They use them as bludgeons for preventing the free expression of Beauty in new forms. They are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist. A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions - one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. What they mean by these words seems to me to be this. When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true.

This from around 1890 or so, and just briefly a few things that popped into my head with regard to our very own country today.

  • Movie studios rushing to put out movies that mimic other studios' "successful" productions (or, alternately, adding 3, 4, 5, etc. to new versions of their own "successful" productions).
  • The American Right Wing (and it is almost exclusively the Right Wing) attempting to de-fund any and all monies for the Arts because they don't understand the artists and/or the art being funded (they will claim that the projects are pornographic, or un-American, but in truth they simply don't GET THEM, and they make no effort to try). Which leads nicely into...
  • The American Right Wing and their obsession with the "cultural elite", as in, for example, Ms. Michelle Bachmann saying something along the lines of "do you want the cultural elite dictating the direction of this country?" In fact, there are two things going on here - first, Ms. Bachmann is an EXTREME fundamentalist Christian who would absolutely dictate the direction of this country if she could (New Yorker profile 8/15,22/11 will make that completely clear), so it's not that she has a problem with a prescriptive path for America, it's that is must be HER path; second, by denigrating the "cultural elite", she attacks education and knowledge as if those things were bad things. And in her world view they ARE bad if they call into question the role Christ played and/or will play in American history (and the more you read about Ms. Bachmann you may discover that her Christ doesn't have as much in common with your Christ as you might imagine).
  • Last November, Eric Cantor and John Boehner lead a campaign to have a four minute video excerpt of David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" removed from an exhibit at the Smithsonian. The offending image? A crucifix with ants crawling over it. I have seen the piece since then at MOMA in New York; you can likely find it on youtube if you care. Was this an attack on Christianity in general? Probably not; it certainly WAS a commentary from the late 1980s on the AIDS crisis in America and this country's failed response to said crisis. (For a long time I wore a button that said "The Body of Christ Has AIDS", and once on a New York subway train two "Christians" sitting across from me had a discussion about some very un-Christian things they wanted to do to me (ultimately unfulfilled) because of the button (I can't confirm that they were Cantor and Boehner)). Point being, the Christ of "A Fire in My Belly" was likely a representation of Compassion, albeit Compassion infested with insects - a sad and/or ironic commentary about our "Christian" country.
At any rate, what I do like about this Wilde quote, aside from the fact that it got me thinking (which is all I want anybody to do, really; to think and explore for themselves), is that it's still relevant, and no worse the wear for age. Save for the use of pronouns, natch.

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