The Critic as Artist: Musings on Oscar Wilde’s Famous Essay.
For some time now I had been in the desire of possession of a copy of Oscar Wilde's 1891 essay "The Critic As Artist" (a piece I read while on a Wildean binge in college but whose meaning has deepened in light of my current duties as a music writer/editor). The reread left me feeling satisfied, excited, and, if I must be so honest, vindicated.
"The Critic As Artist" examines, through the casual dialogue of two 19th century fashionistas, the importance of art criticism under several microscopes—morality, usefulness throughout history, its relation to the author, and as the title suggests, its merit as art. It is at the epicenter of these thoughts where a truth I hold dear, and defend passionately, rests: that the critic is to not only explore its subject but deepen its importance.
In the essay, Wilde explains through his character: "It is not thought that fascinated him but rather the processes by which thought moves. It was the machine he loved, not what the machine makes." This praise of English poet and playwright Robert Browning's conceptualism is delightful to me because it excuses the critic, and to some extent praises him, for the adoration of art itself and not of the artist who creates it.
In the music writing of the 21st century, admittingly to as far as I can tell, the idea that the artist, as a person, should be ignored is preposterous and offensive even. The artist's background and their personal feelings, all too detailed in press releases, are to be elevated above the sensations and excitements their art creates, simply as the art that it is.
This idea of the artist as the focus of art, driven mostly by the necessity to promote and monetize a fascinating life story, I reject at times unsuccessfully. When an artist is assigned to me or otherwise, I listen to the music first, knowing absolutely nothing about their person and form my draft from that knowledge, I then add the absolutely necessary bits of identifying information and publish—I let the art be the focus of the piece and not the person who created it.
Now let me be clear: the practice I choose to embrace is not meant to discredit the artist but rather the opposite, it is meant to unshackle their art from their initial concept and allow it to expand into something infinite. That art can reach the masses and inject itself into the fantasies, and melancholy of people it must be naked of the individual so that it may serve the individual best.
Wilde challenges the critic's privilege of art emancipation from its artist by asking the following: "Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work? What can they know about it?" The question can be answered in one of two ways: one is that the critic is an artist themselves and the other that through sweet prose he or she becomes it.
The critic, knowingly or not, also forms part of an institution of criticism whose power, however seemingly faded today, still exists to determine what is worthy of being considered art. The argument that art can exist without the institution is refuted by Wilde: "Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name." This is to say that art exists and is perceived most-intensely by others, its infinite effect resting in the power of those who it affects and not those who create it.
And so, it can be said that the critic is the ultimate artist, for the critic, if so he or she would dare, is the liberator of art and simultaneously its most ardent and purest supporter; music criticism, as an art form, is alive and well in the world of algorithm-based hits but it needs its liberators today more than ever before.