BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this dialogue, the characters of Ernest and Gilbert reflect upon the value, nature, and limits of artistic criticism. Ernest serves largely as foil and questioner, taking the everyman view that critics are failed artists and that criticism is a puny endeavor that isn’t good for much. Gilbert, on the other hand, defends criticism of art as an art unto itself, and a difficult one at that, one that requires revealing elements and ideas of the artistic piece that the artist didn’t put in the piece in the first place. Throughout, Gilbert lays down his counterintuitive bits of wisdom about the job of the critic, the characteristics of good critics, and – also – about artists and art, itself. [Ideas such as that all art is immoral.]

Oscar Wilde was famed for his wit, quips, and clever – if controversial – turns of phrase, and this dialogic essay is packed with them. A few of my favorites include:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.”

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”

“If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.”

“Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

“Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

This is an excellent essay, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art, criticism, or who just likes to noodle through ideas. You’re unlikely to complete the essay as a convert to all of Gilbert’s tenets, but you’ll have plenty to chew on, mentally speaking.


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BOOK REVIEW: Hippias Major [a.k.a. Greater Hippias] by Plato

Hippias MajorHippias Major by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Socrates questions the arrogant sophist, Hippias, about the nature of beauty. The dialogue begins, as do most, with a meeting and pleasantries. This involves Socrates’ seemingly sarcastic praise of Hippias (we’re given no indication that Hippias sees the sarcasm, but – given the degree to which the sophist is in love with himself – that’s no surprise.) It’s possible Socrates is being sincere, but given the views attributed to him elsewhere, it seems uncharacteristic that Socrates should truly think Hippias wise because the sophist rakes in cash for making eloquent speeches.

The dialogue plays out with Hippias offering a range of unacceptable “definitions” of beauty. Hippias first presents a set of examples of things which are beautiful. This, of course, is unacceptable because if there is some common property of these varied entities, Socrates believes that property should be definable such that a person could see how the trait applies to other things. There are a series of other false starts involving goldenness, goodness, usefulness, popular agreement about what is beautiful, and a combination or two of the aforementioned.

Finally, Socrates suggests a definition of that which is pleasing to the eyes or to the ears. The discussion peters out after this definition is shown to be incomplete because pleasantness to eyes and to ears still begs the need of a common characteristic, as well as the fact that there are many concepts that are called beautiful that aren’t sensory experiences at all (e.g. a beautiful idea.)

This dialogue is more satisfying than Lesser Hippias, but is by no means one of the best. However, it does encourage thought about beauty, as well as about how both members of a set can have a characteristic that each does not have individually. If you’re interested in aesthetics, check it out.

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POEM: Grace & Beauty at a Distance

As I wade through tall grass,
it seems to be a hodge-podge of random heights,
randomly spaced,
and drooping in random directions,

but when I look out at a distance,
that tall grass smooths the world
into soft rounded shapes.

I guess a lot of things are like that.
Imperfections and differences seen near at hand
vanish into grace and beauty at a distance.

POEM: Beauty

People prefer a face that can launch a thousand ships to one that can stop a clock. But did the clock-stopping face break the clockwork mechanism or halt the steady increase in entropy?

[Speaking of entropy, and it’s insistence on increase, a more disordered face reflects a more advanced state of progression, and yet that advancement isn’t honored.]

Back to the clock-stopping face. Breaking the brittle plastic gears of a mass-made clock is no great feat compared to ship-launching. But binding up the inexorable flow of the universe? That’s power.

POEM: What Is this Thing Called Beauty?

We see beauty in nature, but we see more in nature reigned in — kept in check by the hand of man. Why should a fresh-cut patch of grass please the eye more than its shaggy state of nature?

What soul doesn’t sore at the sight of a Japanese garden? It’s nature, but micromanaged in the slightest details of distance, shape, light, and order. Not a leaflet out of place. Gravel pads equidistantly furrowed with great precision. A bonsai tree could be called grotesque in its gnarled, shriveled deformation, but — instead — the bonsai has a universal visual appeal. Is it because they are stunted and deformed in precisely the manner man has chosen?

We see beauty in the human form, as well — but too rarely in our own. We like them depilated — plucked to the point that not a hair stands out of place. Biology tells us our eyes should seek the figure capable of staying strong while chasing prey across the savanna or gathering nuts and berries through wastelands where those foods are sparse. But our eyes covet those leaner than that — that leanness expresses our beloved ordered angularity.

Pure nature is frisson-laden — ever uncontrollable, unpredictable, and disordered. Its beauty is never separated from the fear it inspires.

Manicured nature offers a pleasing feel of dominion — an illusion of control that puts the mind at ease.

POEM: Truth & Beauty

Philosophers speak of truth and beauty in the same sentence.

The only connection I see is that neither can be seized tightly.

Beauty blanches or crumples under the force of a tight fist,

and any truth that flies from a tender grip isn’t so true as you’d like it to be.

Sometimes, the truth is ugly.

Sometimes, beauty is a lie.

Hell, sometimes the truth is a lie and a lie is true,

and often times a beauty is ugly & ugliness is beautiful.

POEM: Beauty

blinding fire of neurons

— excitation & secretion —

all from a 2-D arrangement of pixels

that my brain thinks is worth getting worked up over —

symmetry, smoothness, scaling, and that jazz–

but that program isn’t the final word

i’ve re-jacked the synaptic dance

when the wiser bit recognized something

flawless in the arrangement of a pile of flaws

or a gorgeous simplicity,

or, alternatively, poison in the perfection

in the short-run,

what was said of pornography may be true of beauty —

i.e. “I know it when I see it.”

but, in the long run,

we’re all dust,

&

vaguely-remembered best impressions