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