ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7 Blesok no. 24 | volume V | January-February, 2002
Blesok no. 24,
Oscar Wilde, Censorship and the Moral Art of Living
During his short career Oscar Wilde wrote extensively on the subject of art and popular morality. Through the medium of his flamboyant personality and exotic attire he provided a defiant challenge to the social and cultural values of his day. In 1892 he clashed with the censors when his exotic play Salome was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for its portrayal of Biblical characters. Sentenced to two years' Hard Labour for homosexual offences in 1895 he was regarded as morally reprehensible in his own time and it has taken almost a century for his moral and aesthetic philosophy to achieve the recognition it deserves.
What Wilde advocated was freedom from restraint. This was the cornerstone of his moral philosophy, and his commitment was to an ideal of both moral and artistic freedom. The artist, he believed, should remain independent of popular morality, and popular opinion should not be allowed to interfere with the freedom of the artist to create whatever he or she chooses.
Perhaps the most appropriate illustration of Wilde's ideas on this subject is expressed in the Preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and in the letters defending it, which he addressed to the editor of the Scots Observer. The novel tells the story of a beautiful youth whose portrait assumes the physical corruption of his soul while his face and body remain that of a man of twenty. Dorian Gray had, in effect, sold his soul to the devil for a pretty face.
At the time of its publication in 1890 the book was slammed by critics as an immoral work. The Scots Observer published a review in which the novel was derided as 'unnatural' and 'foul'. The review's complaint is that Wilde did not specify his own moral leanings. Thus, 'it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity'. (Hart-Davis, 1979).
Through his replies to these letters Wilde formulated an argument against art censorship that remains relevant today. He wrote a total of three lengthy letters defending his motives. In his elaborate defence he highlights some of the problems confronting the modern artist. These problems pertain to the conflict between the personal freedom demanded by the artist and the restrictions enforced by the demands of public morality.
Appealing to the relationship between art and its audience Wilde wrote that, 'those who have
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