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Assigned: Oscar Wilde. From "The Decay of Lying" (790-94); "The Critic as Artist" (794-807).

"The Decay of Lying"

1. On 791-93, Vivian discusses the relationship between art and history, art and a given age or society. What startling conclusions does he set forth about this relationship? What art theory is he explicitly rejecting when he says that "Art never expresses anything but itself" (791)? What power attaches to art precisely because it expresses only itself and "rejects the burden of the human spirit"?

2. On 793-94, Vivian argues that "The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us." (The somebody whose idea Wilde adapts to his own purposes here is Immanuel Kant, of course, who emphasized the "disinterested" quality of judgments about beautiful objects.) What basic mistake on the part of modern artists is Vivian pointing out in this part of our selection – where do the proponents of Realism go wrong in the choice of their material?

3. On 794, Vivian serves up his third doctrine: "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." How does he justify this startling conclusion, which turns mimetic or imitative theories of art upside down? Why shouldn't art imitate life, and why should life imitate art? What, then, is the purpose of art?

"The Critic As Artist"

4. On 794-97, Wilde's Gilbert seems to be engaged in a dialogue with influential mid-Victorian critic Matthew Arnold, in particular with his promotion of cultural and literary criticism in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time." To what extent is Gilbert in agreement with Arnold's viewpoint, and to what extent is he already adapting or even overturning the key Arnoldian concept of "criticism" in its relation to artistic creation?

5. On 797-98, how does Gilbert criticize Ernest's insistence that action is superior to talk? What does Gilbert have against the realm of action? Why is talking about things better than doing things?

6. On 798 bottom-800, how does Gilbert delineate what he repeatedly calls the "highest Criticism"? How is its practitioner genuinely deserving of the title "creative" and engaged in a project similar to that of the creative artist? Even further, why is the critic ultimately superior to the artist? What famous English art/culture critics does Gilbert call to witness as excellent indicators that his theory is strong?

7. On 801-03, how does Gilbert further advance his claim that criticism is even worthier a phenomenon than the creation of original works of art? What role does Gilbert's delineation of terms revolving around the concept of "Beauty" play in his explanation of criticism's great value and superiority? And why is music "the perfect type of art"?

8. On 804-07, Wilde's Gilbert, as an impressionist proponent, addresses the importance of the critic's "personality" in the acts of perception and interpretation that go towards excellent criticism. What does Gilbert appear to mean by the term "personality," and why is it so important to this impressionist critic? Further, according to Gilbert, what will eventually happen with respect to "the elect spirits of each age" as the world becomes more civilized – what form of life and what habits or perspective will they adopt?

9. If this is a theory course, we may have read Walter Pater's "Conclusion" to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). What points of contact can you find between Gilbert's ideas in these pages (especially 804-07) and the aesthetic notions and program for living that Pater lays out in his controversial "Conclusion"?

10. General question. What Wilde is articulating in the selections from "The Decay of Lying" is of course a form of literary impressionism. We know that such a theory generally rejects mimetic criticism (which centers on the belief that art should strive to represent human life and the realm of nature faithfully), but how does it also differ from the expressive theory we find in the English romantic poets? Explain.

11. General question. What advantages does Wilde's use of a Socratic form of dialog bestow upon his essay in making the case that lying is a vital element of human society and that the demand for "truth-telling" is vulgar and misguided?

12. General Question: in your own view, what is the critic's relation to the work of art? Does the art or literary critic have a responsibility to carry out the Arnoldian task of "see{ing} the object as in itself it really is," or do you think critics have more important and creative things to do? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.


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