Tag Archives: Arts Broadcasting

Where is the Line Between History and Arts Programming?

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BBC Four’s Ancient Greece season kicked off this week with the first episode of Treasures of Ancient Greece, a new three-part series presented by Alastair Sooke, and a special episode of Secret Knowledge entitled ‘The Body Beautiful – Ancient Greeks, Good Looks and Glamour’.

While watching this double bill of Greek art last Wednesday night I was again struck with a question that often comes up both when watching such programmes and the discussion that surrounds them: where do we draw the line between what is considered arts programming and history programming? The different approaches taken to the subject matters presented in Treasures of Ancient Greece and Secret Knowledge provide the perfect opportunity to examine this question in a little more detail.

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One line of inquiry might be to consider whether the art featured within the programme is used to illustrate the historical content or whether the historical content is used to contextualise the art.

Although the historical narrative is obviously very strong in Treasures of Ancient Greece, the art is still very clearly the focus. This is an approach that is emphasised right at the start of the programme as Sooke lays down the underlining thesis of the series:

“It was the ancient Greeks who shaped our ideas of what art should look like. No other civilisation has played such an important role in creating our vision of artistic perfection, of beauty, of realism.”

It is about the significance of art in Greek society, rather than just using art to illustrate the past. For instance, when discussing a wall painting which portrays the Minoan spectacle of bull-leaping, particular attention is paid to dissecting the composition of the piece rather than merely focusing on the particular cultural significance of the practice depicted. Although the social and cultural context behind the art is of course still present to a degree, it is often an aesthetic analysis that takes centre stage.

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However, if we go on to look at the programme that aired directly after Treasures of Ancient Greece, we’ll witness a slightly different approach to the presentation of art on screen. In Secret Knowledge: The Body Beautiful Natalie Haynes traces our obsession with the ‘perfect body’ back to the Ancient Greeks through their art, and their sculpture in particular. Much of the discussion that surrounds the artwork is focused on how the Greeks perceived beauty, with particular references to the philosophy of Socrates who set out to define the nature of beauty in his famous dialogue Hippias Major.

So should this programme fall within the category of arts or history programming?

Indeed, compared to Treasures of Ancient Greece there is a noticeable shift in emphasis to the social context as a basis for analysis rather than purely the aesthetics of the art itself. However, there is a strong argument that the very subject matter of how we define ‘beauty’ is among one of the primary concerns in art both from a philosophical and practical perspective. As Haynes states when introducing the purpose of the programme:

“It’s going to ask, and I hope answer, one of the most fundamental questions about all of art: What is beauty?”

As both programmes have demonstrated, the line between history and arts programming is often difficult to define. This might beg the question of whether there is actually any real value in trying to distinguish between two perhaps arbitrary categories.

Art is often hard to avoid in what might predominantly be seen as historical programming, particularly when dealing with times before high levels of literacy when ideas were more commonly communicated through images than writing. It is also important not to overlook that the visual nature of television also lends itself better to displaying art from a particular time period than the written word.


But what about when we consider content branding strategies such as BBC ARTS? The BBC’s arts and history content each have their own dedicated separate webpages, although it is interesting to note that Treasures of Ancient Greece is present on both. If there is an overlap in the way content is organised, how does this translate in regards to matters such as funding and marketing?

The definition and categorisation of arts programming is also an ever-present concern within my own research on the subject. Indeed, I will often ask my interviewees to tell me how them themselves define arts broadcasting.

Both Treasures of Ancient Greece and Secret Knowledge were featured in the BBC ARTS email newsletter, which is to suggest that they fall within the category of arts programming. However, it does seem that the less arts coverage that is coming up in a given week, the broader the range of programming featured.

So should arts programming on the BBC be defined as any programme that features the BBC ARTS ident at the beginning, or should there be a closer examination of the content of the programmes themselves? Is it often simply a case of invoking Potter Stewart’s famous maxim: “I know it when I see it”, or should there more analysis involved?

Although the line between history and arts programming may often be blurred or even arbitrary to some, I believe there is still value in considering the ways in which a separate genre for the arts is defined within the context of production and branding.


What can Susan Sontag tell us about arts broadcasting today?


In 1964 Susan Sontag published her seminal work Against Interpretation. The essay is fundamentally a critique of society’s obsession with interpretation, calling for a more sensual approach to understanding art and culture; a stance she summarises in her closing statement: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.

Over fifty years later, and you could argue that the themes explored in Sontag’s work now seem more pertinent than ever. With the proliferation of online social media, whether consciously or unconsciously we seem to be constantly called upon to interpret our cultural world and everyday experiences, categorising them in the form of hashtags or building an image of our lives and who we are through the pictures we share, the places we check in at and the online connections we make.

But how might Sontag’s work inform the ways in which we think about arts broadcasting today?

In an earlier blog post I discussed the notion that broadcasting as a medium often serves to communicate ideas about the arts rather than art itself, with a few notable exceptions. In this article, I want to use Sontag’s work as a starting point to further explore how the arts are mediated using two recent high-profile programmes: The Big Painting Challenge and Grayson Perry: Who Are You?


The underlining thesis of Sontag’s work is an opposition to the popular notion that art must always be representative of a concept or idea that requires decoding. Further to this, she argues that through interpretation we separate ourselves from experiencing the ‘sensuous surface of art’:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

For Sontag, part of the issue with interpretation and art criticism is the separation of form and content that sees the former as merely an accessory of the latter. Furthermore, she argues, form is often seen as something that must in fact be transcended in order to uncover the content within the piece (a subject she would return to in more depth in her 1965 essay On Style).

In terms of broadcasting, this way of talking about art which privileges content over form is one that I’m sure we’re all very much accustomed to through a plethora of arts documentaries that take this approach. The presenter’s role is often to guide us through the symbolic meanings of each piece so that we might feel that we better understand it. This has become such an accepted modus operandi for arts programming that it is even more striking when programmes seem to break this mould.

A very recent example of this can be found in the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge. The format of an art competition in which contestants must demonstrate their skills across a variety of different mediums requires the viewer to focus much more on the style and form of the piece rather than any underlying symbolism or meaning (or ‘content’). Furthermore, our room for interpretation is also limited by being privy to the artistic process from start to finish, portraying it as one of aesthetic rather than moral judgement.


To expand on how Sontag’s critique of interpretation is a useful discussion point for understanding contemporary arts broadcasting, I want to return to a quote by Oscar Wilde which is featured right at the beginning of her essay:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Indeed Wilde, known for being a strong advocate of ‘art for art’s sake’, seems the perfect poster boy for the campaign to end this theoretical duality between content and form. As he writes in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

It is this quote that I feel most aptly summarises the underlining ethos behind my next example of arts programming.

In Grayson Perry: Who Are You? the Turner Prize winning artist sets out to create a series of fourteen portraits using a diverse range of individuals. Like in the case of The Big Painting Challenge, our interpretation is limited by being witness to the artistic process undertaken by Perry. There is no need for any interpretation on the viewer’s part, as it is all laid out for us as a collaborative process between the artist and sitter through a series of on screen-interviews and discussions. Further to this, Perry takes us through his reasoning behind each artistic decision at each stage so that we might understand how it contributes to the finished product.

However, what is particularly striking about the series is the ways in which the medium and style of the portraits are portrayed as a fundamental part of their ‘message’, from the fragility of the smashed pot for disgraced politician Chris Huhne, to using a hijab as the canvas on which to depict Kayleigh’s conversion to Islam. The style of the piece is the content.


Towards the end of Against Interpretation, Sontag calls for an approach to discussing art that uses a more descriptive, rather than prescriptive vocabulary. One in which form and content are not treated as distinct categories and ‘the sensory experience of the work of art’ is not taken for granted:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art-and, by analogy, our own experience- more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I would argue that broadcasting’s ability to display the artistic process provides us with an insight into ‘how [art] is what it is’. Through limiting the need for interpretation, we are presented with a far more aesthetic experience of art in which the distinction between form and content seems more like the ‘illusion’ that Sontag argues it is.

Although there is certainly a place for both approaches to mediating the arts, it is interesting to note how arts programming that privileges aesthetics over interpretation tend to have more popular appeal. In this respect, it might be interesting to consider whether we place more value the interpretation of art or the experience of it and whether, as Sontag argues, the two are indeed mutually exclusive.

BBC ARTS is Getting Creative


Last Thursday the BBC launched its new year-long campaign ‘Get Creative’, which Director-General Tony Hall hopes will serve to “inspire everyone to make art or do something creative.”

Speaking on the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show, Director of BBC Arts Jonty Claypole explained that a fundamental part of the scheme is ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to get involved with the arts, regardless of their social background or education. In regard to the BBC’s unique role as a broadcaster in this, he stated: “Through our services we reach 96% of the population a week, so we’re really well placed to get more people than ever before practising art and doing creative things”.

The nationwide campaign launched last week with a series of events across the country arranged by the organisation Voluntary Arts and shared on social media using the hashtag #bbcgetcreative.

Over 100 organisations have signed up to take part in the campaign, including prominent cultural institutions such as Arts Council England, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the BFI, among others. The BBC has also released a promotional video for the scheme featuring celebrities and public figures such as Johnny Vegas, Kate Moss, Frank Skinner and Andrew Marr.

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BBC Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw’s ‘Cultural Selfie’

Not only is this new initiative significant in terms of scale, but also in the way that engagement with the arts is being promoted across a range of platforms, pulled together by the BBC’s Get Creative website.

The ‘Get Creative’ campaign, in line with Tony Hall’s vision of the arts and the launch of the BBC ARTS strand seems rather strategically placed as we come up to the charter review in 2016. In a multiplatform digital age, the BBC as a public service broadcaster seem keen to assert their value as a cultural institution beyond just television and radio. This emphasis on engaging audiences with the arts through interactive online and offline events draws attention to how broadcasters have adapted to technological and social change in ways that prompt us to reconsider traditional notions of public service.

Alongside this, the upcoming general election seems to be creating a climate in which we’re beginning to see a lot of discussion and debate around the value of arts and culture within society. Increasingly, it seems the arts are being used to talk about everything from education to the economy in terms of cultural policy.

Broadcasting serves a significant role in giving a voice to these debates. Most recently, The Front Row Debate on BBC Radio 4 and Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 have discussed topics such as whether the state owes artists a living and hosted on-going discussions around the value of art, respectively. Along with its significance in regard to contributing to a wider discussion around the value of arts and culture in society, this coverage of the arts also sends out an important message about what is worth talking about and what debates are worth having.

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Countryfile and One Show presenter Matt Baker

If you would like to take part in a Get Creative event without even leaving the comfort of your living room, on 27th February at 1pm the Welsh National Opera will be leading a Twitter debate around the question ‘will austerity kill culture?’ using the hashtag #killculture. For more details please go to: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/will-austerity-kill-culture

The Great British Paint Off

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Last night saw the first episode of BBC One’s new arts competition The Big Painting Challenge hosted by Richard Bacon and Una Stubbs, and judged by acclaimed artists Daphne Todd and and Lachlan Goudie. This is the first of the BBC’s series of special programming designed to “encourage people to discover a new passion or master a talent they already have” as part of the year-long Get Creative campaign which was launched last week.

The series involves ten amateur artists demonstrating their skills across a range of mediums by completing three challenges each week. Each episode has a particular theme, such as landscapes or portraiture, culminating in the judges deciding which contestant is leaving the competition that week.

Whilst Stubbs herself is a keen amateur artist whose watercolour portraits of her Sherlock co-stars Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have been displayed as part of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, Bacon seems a more unusual choice of host, although he asserts quite early on in the programme that he is a “keen art collector”.

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The contestants featured represent quite a wide cross-section of society, from a young Cambridge University student, to a British Army sergeant, to a single mother from Swansea. Throughout the programme we are given a brief background on each contestant and their relationship to art, which seems to emphasise that you don’t necessarily need to go to art school in order to consider yourself an artist.

Portraying everyday people creating art also serves to reduce the somewhat authoritative nature present within a lot of arts programming. As a viewer, we are perhaps more inclined to make aesthetic judgements on their work because they’re not part of an established cultural canon. We won’t be branded a philistine for thinking one of their paintings might be “a bit crap”.

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Along with appealing to a broader audience, the competition format also gives us an insight into art that we don’t often see. We are usually just exposed to the finish product, rather than the practical process of creating the piece, whether this is in arts programming or hanging in a gallery. This is of course because commonly the artists that make up the majority our cultural canon are long dead, leaving us to interpret their work retrospectively from the finished product. By reversing this narrative, the finished artwork is not symbolic of years, perhaps even centuries, of interpretation and study. The viewer is free to judge the piece on a purely aesthetic level that is accessible to everyone as a subjective opinion. The work doesn’t have a history around it that needs to be known in order to feel like you understand the work and can therefore pass judgement.

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It is no surprise that the series has received criticism for being too similar to Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year in its format. However, there are some notable differences, the most striking of which is that there seems to be a little less emphasis on the competitive element. The focus on the personal stories of the participants and their creative process while undertaking the challenges often leaves you forgetting that the end goal is to win a competition. In a lot of ways it often feels like you are sitting in on an art class field trip in which it’s hard to tell whether the real subject is in front of the easel or behind it.

Can Television Be Art?


In a recent article entitled Television Amongst Friends: Medium, Art, Media, Sarah Cardwell challenges the definition of television as a ‘medium’, proposing instead that ‘television be regarded as an art composed of many media’ (2014: 6). Television as an artistic medium is a concept I’ve briefly alluded to in a previous post in which I considered how art is defined within the context of broadcasting. In this post I want to delve a little further into the discussion around television’s place and, of course, value within this predefined notion of ‘the arts’.

As Cardwell writes in the aforementioned article:

An over-emphasis on TV’s communicative rather than artistic functions separates ‘the media’ from ‘the arts’. As one’s interest turns to the dramatic content of television, especially fictional content, does it really make sense to place television within a different category from other narrative arts such as theatre and film (and isolate it completely from non-narrative arts such as painting and sculpture)? The distinction between television-as-medium (television-as-conveyor of popular/mass communication) and ‘art proper’ serves to sustain the barricades between television and other arts
(2014: 9)

This raises interesting questions around what exactly distinguishes television from the arts in both form and content, and how this dichotomy may merely serve to sustain a preconceived hierarchy of cultural value.

If we consider the arts in the context of television as a medium for mass communication then we are perhaps led to the assumption that television can only represent ideas about the arts, rather than be a legitimate medium for artistic expression in itself. But this is perhaps to ignore the long history of the visual arts being used as a medium for communicating ideas to the masses. You only have to look at the stained glass windows that adorn the walls of churches depicting biblical narratives for the predominantly illiterate medieval worshippers to see how ideas around morality and faith have been communicated through art to a collective audience.


Arguments that distinguish television from art by emphasising its role as a medium for mass communication also become somewhat unstuck when we consider content that is defined by its very lack of ideological structure. A few months back I discussed whether ‘slow TV’ could be considered conceptual art. Comparing the genre’s recent proliferation in Norway to Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Sleep, I outlined how this form of “anti-television” challenged our preconceptions of what television should or should not be. The most prominent way this is achieved is through the lack of distinct narrative, leaving the viewer with somewhat of a ‘blank canvas’. If we conceptualise television as a medium for the broadcast of ideas and meaning, then it seems difficult to place slow TV within this context.

There have also been instances of artists creating works specifically for broadcasting on television. A notable example is the late David Hall’s ‘Tap Piece’ from 1971, which features a tap filling the screen with water without any form of explanation or context.

This, arguably the most memorable of the seven ‘TV interruptions’ created by Hall, demonstrates how television can be used as a medium for more abstract and avant-garde forms of artistic expression. It is clear that Hall’s work is created specifically for television, with the unexpected nature of the ‘interruption’ being comparable to that of the breaking news broadcast or the susceptibility of analogue television signals to interference. It is the breaking of this ‘flow’ that makes the piece striking and catches the audience’s attention.

So does this mean that television must always subvert its own norms in order to facilitate artistic expression? What makes drama written for television or radio different from that written for and performed on stage, for example? Or if you were to project the latest fragrance commercial from Paco Rabanne onto the wall of an art gallery and remove the references to the actual product, would people think it was a masterpiece?

If we move beyond the highbrow/lowbrow culture dichotomy, which can sometimes be seen as both a start and end point in these sort of debates, we can perhaps consider some other aspects of television that distinguish it from the art world in the minds of both viewers and critics.

To return to the example of the abstract and often bizarre fragrance commercials, there’s the issue of the intention behind the piece. It’s rather doubtful that Paco Rabanne is using the commercial break between Hollyoaks to portray an insight into the human soul (and God help us if they are). The notion of commercial gain that drives these pieces seems to contradict the romantic vision of the artist as placing more value on their work than economic reward.


‘The Poor Poet’ by Carl Spitzweg

There is also the collaborative aspect of television production. Many of the works that constitute the canon of art within our culture can be attributed to a single person. Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Tracey Emin’s bed, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. However, with television it is often hard to pinpoint a singular source of artistic vision. Who is responsible for the aesthetic value of the finished piece? The scriptwriter? The director? The camera operator? Whilst each individual may have their claim to various levels of artistic influence within the production process, they are all essential in creating the finished piece.

So, although you may be hard pressed to find anyone who could confidently defend the artistic integrity of the Six O’Clock News or Jeremy Kyle, that’s not to say that all television should be placed in a box marked ‘not art’ and left in a bin round the back of the National Gallery. As video artists such as David Hall have demonstrated in the past, television can serve as an incredibly effective medium for artistic expression. However, if we want to further dismantle the cultural barriers that separate television from art, we need to perhaps look beyond the idea that the only way of creating ‘television art’ is through subverting the very norms that have come to define the medium.

Watching Paint Dry: Is ‘Slow TV’ Art?

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In 1963 Andy Warhol filmed his then-lover, the poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours and titled it Sleep. A year later the film was premiered at the Grammercy Arts Theater, and according to the New York Post only nine people attended the screening, with two leaving during the first hour.

However, it would seem that Warhol’s “anti-film” was perhaps a little ahead of its time. Today, millions of viewers in Norway are tuning in to watch real-time footage of burning fireplaces, sheep shearing and ship voyages on the country’s public service broadcasting service, NRK.

A notable example that has been gaining a lot of attention is Bergensbanen minutt for minutt, which shows a minute-by-minute train journey from Bergen to Oslo predominantly from the driver’s point of view. If you have a spare seven hours you can watch the complete film below:

The growing popularity of Norway’s aptly named ‘Slow TV’ has also gained interest here in Britain, with British Airways set to show Bergensbanen minutt for minutt as an in-flight film to calm stressed passengers. Although whether we’ll start to see real-time footage of the London to Edinburgh line in place of Strictly Come Dancing remains unseen.

But the use of Slow TV by British Airways also draws particular attention to the therapeutic qualities of the genre. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller states:

Slow TV seems slow in part because, unlike our standard experience of the world, it’s unshaped by interior consciousness. Instead of drowning out its viewers’ inner lives, it seems to want to be a backdrop that can give rise to their own reflections. A slow-TV program is like a great view you encounter on vacation: it’s always there, impervious, but it gains meaning and a story depending on what it conjures in your head.

So by presenting us with the mundane and normal within a timeframe that matches our everyday experience of the world, Slow TV creates something of a blank narrative canvas on which the viewer may project their thoughts onto.


In the book Art as Therapy, pop philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong present a thesis based around the notion that the visual arts serve a therapeutic function for the observer. To underline their argument, Botton and Armstrong strongly advocate that the arts should be approached in a more personal and subjective way that can help us think through our ‘innermost problems’.

Although watching logs burning in a fireplace for five hours may not arouse the deepest of soul-searching or provide the answers to all of our moral dilemmas, it could be argued that it still serves a therapeutic purpose through inciting self-reflection and mindfulness within the viewer.


Like the iconic pop art that Warhol is predominantly known for, Sleep is very much about the representation of the mundane. Both Warhol’s paintings and films challenge the traditional conventions of each medium both in subject and form.

The same can also be said of Slow TV. Television has long been thought of as a medium for broadcasting ideas and information through its programming, rather than as a catalyst for self-reflection. It presents us with the interesting and the engaging, rather than the mundane. By subverting these norms Slow TV makes us reconsider the very nature of what television should or should not be.

So is this genre of “anti-television” a new form of conceptual art? Some may argue so. However, I’m sure there will be many more who echo the thoughts of one Rotten Tomatoes user, who on reviewing Warhol’s Sleep simply states: “This is just as boring as you’d imagine it would be. I want 5 hours of my life back.”

Would Wilde have watched the Culture Show?


In the essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Oscar Wilde lays out his vision of a utopian socialist society in which the inherently demoralising work of manual labour is undertaken by machinery, leaving the individual time to focus on cultivating the soul through self-understanding and the creation of ‘beautiful things’.

For Wilde, the beauty of art is a result of its nature as one of the purest forms of self-expression:

‘A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want’ (1891: 304)

As such, it follows that in order for a piece of art to be popular the artist must attempt to suppress the individualism that is inherent in creating it, and in doing so strip all artistic integrity from their work.

‘In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest’ (1891: 305)

So what would Wilde have made of the arts being broadcast on television? It goes without saying that through broadcasting their work artists are opening themselves up for feedback and criticism within the most public of arenas, the influence of which cannot easily be ignored. So we can perhaps assume that Wilde would have viewed their work with much the same ironic distaste that he reserved for novels and the theatre in the late 19th Century when he stated that:

 ‘No country produces such badly-written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England’ (1891: 305)

But perhaps Wilde’s biggest gripe with the arts being broadcast on television would have been with their unavoidable mediation. Wilde proposed that we should approach the arts with an open mind as free from all preconceptions as possible:

‘If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play’ (1891: 311)

 It’s certainly hard to see television being able to facilitate such a state of mind Wilde describes here as essential for experiencing art. In arts programming the artist is not a solo violinist, but rather part of a complex orchestra of producers, presenters, scriptwriters, commissioners, and so on.

Therefore Wilde would perhaps argue that television could never show us ‘true’ art in its purest form, for how are we to approach art with an open mind with Andrew Graham-Dixon chattering away in our ear about it?

To return to the title of this post: Would Wilde have watched The Culture Show? Perhaps. But not without writing a scathing review in The Independent about its contribution to the moral degradation of the soul afterwards.

Wilde, O. (1891). The Soul of Man Under Socialism. The Fortnightly Review. Vol. XLIX, No. 290, February 1891, pp. 292-319