Blesok no. 24, January-February, 2002
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 artistic instincts will see its beauty, and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly will see its moral lesson.' If we see immorality in it, it is an immorality we have brought to it from our own experiences and perceptions, and is not inherently present in the work itself. What is more, moral instruction is not the purpose of art. Art, 'is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.' (Hart-Davis,1979).
If we can separate art from any influence upon action there can be no need for censorship. Those who advocate censorship do so in the belief that art affects action, and is responsible for its immorality in many instances. Wilde argued that virtue and vice were merely, 'materials for an art.' Books for Wilde were, 'either well-written or badly written. That is all.' There is no such thing as an immoral work. Morality is in the eye of the consumer.
Recognition of this is necessary for responsible aesthetic appreciation. If we are responsible human beings we should be sufficiently cultivated to take responsibility for the messages we derive from works of art. Indeed, if a work of art is at all valuable it will say many things to us, and have a multitude of sub-texts whose meanings differ with each person.
Thus, the freedom Wilde demanded for the artist also involved freedom on the part of the public. That freedom is the freedom to choose how we respond to a work of art. Acknowledging that we have the freedom to choose our responses flies in the face of censorship, which strives to protect the public from itself and to deny individual autonomy to the consumer. The diversity that censorship denies to the work of art it also denies to the public's interpretation of such artwork.
The greatest crime of censorship is that it dictates the reception of artworks according to a single perspective that limits diversity of opinion. For Wilde it is the capacity to generate diversity of opinion that is the hallmark of great art, since, 'it shows that the work is new, complex and vital.' (Complete Works, 1986, P17). If an artwork is to contain any value it lies in its ability to provoke the reader into an intelligent response. Its vitality lies not in its allegiance to a singular truth, but in its capacity to provoke controversy and discussion.
Controversy and discussion in themselves do not belong to the sphere of action but to the sphere of thought, which for Wilde was more important. Artistic creation, for Wilde, occurs in a sphere removed from actual life and can have no effect upon action. The aim of art is simply to facilitate contemplation. If art is 'followed by activity of any kind', he writes, it is because the spectator, 'has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.' (Hart-Davis, 1979, P.96). Likewise the controversy it generates belongs in the same realm: the realm of thought. Therefore, if works of art can generate controversy it should not be an issue for the censor, since such things have no effect outside the sphere of art.
In Wilde's aesthetics the central concept defining the sphere of art is style. When artists produce their work they are not concerned with addressing themselves to moral issues, but are merely concerned with the style of artistic production. Artists do not set out to produce works that have a morally prescriptive dimension because their concern is the presentation of ideas. In Wilde's view of art, the manner in which an idea is presented is of greater significance than any underlying 'message' or moral content. Style for Wilde was a mannerism adopted by the artist for the purpose of conveying an interesting idea.
Yet there is more to Wilde's argument than this, since Wilde emphasises the phenomenon of style in order to illustrate the artist's freedom from a singular perspective. The argument against censorship concerns the separation of the work from its creator, and it is through the conscious adoption of a particular style that this separation must become evident. In the privileging of style over moral content the artist objectifies himself, distancing himself from polemics. Thus, he writes, 'no artist has ethical sympathies', since, 'an ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.'
Style is a mask, and the artist is a creature of many masks, many moods. This is why, for Wilde, 'to confuse the artist with his subject matter is an unpardonable crime.' In his aesthetic philosophy Wilde linked the concepts of artistic freedom and style. The style of the work, its mode of presentation is an expression of freedom – the freedom of choice exercised by the artist to present his or her work on a variety of levels.
The public's ability to recognise style above morality was for Wilde the hallmark of an intelligent and cultivated public. Style resides in the sphere of art, morality belongs, not merely to the sphere of mundane life, but to personal choice. Responsible art appreciation relies upon the ability to distinguish between two different spheres of reality. Wilde thought that we must accord to art the dignity of belonging in a sphere distinct from profane existence and that we should not judge it according to the standards we employ in our daily lives. It is a world in itself with its own standards and values.
To recognise this is the first step along the road to a more tolerant society which does not need to perpetuate legislation. Artistic freedom, for Wilde, therefore also meant allowing the public to read their own experiences into it while retaining an awareness of its diversity. Existing as it does, within the realm of thought, art should suggest ideas, not dictate lifestyles or moral choices.
But we cannot translate Wilde's ideas into a template for aesthetics without encountering practical problems. Wilde's idea of a cultivated public who can differentiate between the domain of art and its relationship to personal morality is an idealistic notion. Wilde argued that the artist cannot be held responsible for the constructions the public puts upon his or her work. But there are cases where, even if this is so, such constructions cannot be ignored, for example in art that depicts violence. There are those members of the public for whom violent scenes in art are taken as an incitement to perpetrate violence within their personal lives.
Wilde's ideal of a cultivated public does not make allowances for those who lack the power to discriminate between the spheres of art and personal morality. Violence and sadism presented stylistically can become appealing as a way of life. Style has the power to seduce the audience into an aesthetic appreciation that exceeds and transgresses the boundaries between contemplation and action.
But if as a society we hold the artist responsible for the seductive power of their style we limit the diverse potential of the work of art, since we would have to restrict what should and should not be expressed. In the relationship between art and its public there should be equal responsibility on both sides for the construction put upon artworks. Yet this equality of responsibility is difficult to uphold, for example, in the worlds of rock and pop music where the artist has the power to influence an impressionable teen audience. Often artists are as guilty of negating responsibility as the public, striving for controversy at the expense of a sense of artistic integrity.
In short, the problem of how and when to legislate for public morality remains as pertinent as it was in Wilde's time, and his arguments against censorship highlight for us the relationship between artist and public that is the central concern in censorship debates.