Should art be or do anything? There is a wide spectrum of opinions from critics and artists on what art should be or do. Oscar Wilde argues in his preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” that art is beauty or a symbol, but beneath that is left to the interpretation of the spectator. In Gustave Courbet’s essay “Realist Manifesto” art is knowledge to draw from to inspire his own individuality and to create living art. Although both essays bear some superficial similarities, the difference between Wilde’s and Courbet’s definition of art is staggering.
Wilde and Courbet recognized how critics and Academic art authorities reject realism and romanticism and both explain why. Wilde uses a Shakespearean metaphor about critic’s resentment towards realism. “The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass”(Wilde 10). There was enmity between realism and Academic art. The Academy favoured illusionism or allegorical figures like in Adolphe-William Bouguereau’s painting “Nymphs and Satyr” over Edouard Manet’s, scandalous to public and critics, painting “Olympia”.
Manet and other French realists like Gustave Courbet and Honore Daumier were the firsts to depict a unique unidealized, naturalistic, veristic and true to life style. Wilde connects how the Academy was challenged by the style and rejected it because they were uncomfortable with the ugly truth like the way Caliban was in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”“. Courbet opposed the idea of labels because of the observations he made on past movements and the labels that they were given. “Labels have never, in any age, given a very accurate idea of things”(Courbet 1). Courbet recognizes the inaccuracy of labels and the issues labels cause.
Being called a realist made Courbet feel the same way men in the 1830’s felt when being labeled a romantic. Wilde and Courbet are similar because they recognize the issues of labels and explains their reason for the issues. Wilde also uses the metaphor to explain the dissatisfaction of critics during the romanticism movement. “The nineteenth-century dislike of Romanticism is the age of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass”(Wilde 10). romanticism was characterized by extreme theatricality, representation of monstrosity, spiritual, exoticism, extreme states of mind, and freeing the imagination.
Caliban not seeing his reflection is paralleled by how romanticism depicted what you could not see. Critics preferred Neoclassical art like in Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” over romantic are like in Theodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. Critics enjoyed Neoclassical because they preferred clarity, proportionality and heroic idealism. Wilde’s metaphors about realism and romanticism demonstrates how the Academy and critics dislike depictions of extreme reality and extreme theatricality and imagination.
Despite opposition from critics and labeling issues, artists from these periods embrace the extreme of what is there in reality, in realism, and what is not there in reality, in romanticism. Critics and Academic art had issues with both of these time periods, and prefered more conservative representations or more idealized and heroic figures. Wilde and Courbet are similar because they both address critic’s issues with realism and romanticism in their essays. Wilde and Courbet are also similar in the fact that they both use thought or knowledge to create art. Wilde believes artists can express basically everything through thought.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art”(Wilde 10). Thought and language are tools for artists to create art. Wilde creates things first as a symbol that is for the spectator to reflect on. According to Wilde artists can express everything, and thought and language are tools that allow artists to express everything. Courbet believes in studying the ancients and moderns as a tool to create. “To know in order to create, that was my idea”(Courbet 1). Courbet draws from art history as a tool to create art. Wilde and Courbet utilize tools or instruments in order to produce their art.
Both authors have different opinions and perspectives about what art is to them and what it should be. Wilde has his own philosophies about what the artist should be and the aim of art. “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and to conceal the artist is art’s aim”(Wilde 10). Wilde puts less emphasis on the artist and more emphasis on the art. On the other hand, Courbet focuses on his own individual and less on the beauty.
“It was not my wish to imitate one or copy the other; nor was it my idea to attain the idle goal of art for art’s sake! No! I simply wished to draw from a knowledge of the whole tradition a reasoned and independent sense of my own individuality”(Courbet 1). Courbet wanted to know art history in order to create his own identity in his own time. Courbet and Wilde differed in opinions about art, Courbet focused on himself while Wilde left it to the interpretation of the spectator. “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”(Wilde 10).
Wilde leaves the art in the critic’s hands by focusing less on the individual artist and more on the actual beauty and symbol of art. Wilde and Courbet emphasised certain aspects in their art, Wilde focused more on the beauty in art and the spectator interpreting the art, while Courbet focused more on the artist individuality and accuracy of what he see in his life. Wilde and Courbet varied in their goals for their art. Wilde’s goal was to reveal art through thought and language in order to allow the spectator to read the symbol and reflect on themselves.
Wilde welcomed different opinions about a work of art because to him it meant that the “work is new, complex, and vital”(Wilde 10). Different opinions from critics was the gauge used by Wilde to determine if a work of art is significant. Courbet’s goals were to fully understand the knowledge of the ancients and the moderns in order to draw from it and create living art. Courbet wanted to accurately create what he saw it in order to generate living art, art that represented reality in its true form unidealized and naturalistic.
Although both authors shared similar ideas about what art should be and do, their goals and their process in attaining their goals were very different and unique. Although there were many ideas I agreed with in both essays, the things that i found flawed was in Wilde’s essay, he argues all art is useless. I cannot come to terms with this because I can find flaws and scenarios where a lot of art can be useful like art that is functional or has many purposes other than being admired intensely.
I also do not agree with Courbet’s reasoning against trying to attain the goal of art for art’s sake. I am a strong believer in art for art’s sake, the late nineteenth-century symbolist movement is my favorite art movement and period because of the philosophy about how art needs not a moral, utilitarian, or political purpose, it need only be about art itself, beauty or the realm of imagination. If I had to choose one author to whom I am akin to it would be Oscar Wilde because I agree with more of his ideas and believe his essay is more cohesive.
I felt Wilde’s Shakespearean metaphors were spot on about the critic’s reaction to realism and romanticism. Critic’s seem to reject art with extreme depictions or reflections of life, like unidealized reality or extremely theatricality or imagination. I also agree with Wilde’s ideas about how the spectator is what art really mirro nirrors and not life. This idea about art reflecting the spectator resonated with me because it emphasises the spectator to read the symbol and interpret the art for themselves. I also believe in the idea that art is left in the spectator hands.
Although I am more akin to Wilde’s essay, Courbet’s idea about knowing in order create speaks to me as an academic art student. I support Courbet’s idea to know in order to create because I believe it is vital to fully understand the whole knowledge of art history and tradition, to draw from and to understand and depict manners, ideas, and appearances in one’s time period. Overall, I admire most of the ideas in both essays and only find minor flaws in their reasoning. Both authors have sound ideas about what art should be or do and demonstrate how critics also have their own range of opinions about art.
Understanding what art means to artists and critics is a tool that individuals can draw from in order to establish their own individuality and decide what to create. Drawing from the opinions of past artists about art should be and do can help artists convey their art better. There are many opinions about art, it is useful to understand what art means to others so one can form their own new opinion about art or life and create. Art is like a living fluid it can take up whatever shape you want it to be, but it is up to the artists to choose the container, to create what matters.