In 1890, a fan wrote to Oscar Wilde asking him to explain a sentence in the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray : “All art is quite useless”. How could a writer say something so callous? Did it not put to question his own existence? Wilde’s reply was both relevatory and magnificent in its brevity.
“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless,” he writes. Its purpose is not to educate or influence. A flower blossoms for its own joy. “Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental.”
Below is the transcript of the letter. The complete letter can be found on Letters of Note :
16, TITE STREET,
My dear Sir
Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.
A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.