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Do you Agree with Oscar Wilde, or Should Art

be Subservient to Some System of Morality?

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

Oscar Wilde

In ‘cultured’ circles art-for-art’s-saking extended practically to a worship of the meaningless. Literature was supposed to consist solely in the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject matter was the unforgivable sin, and even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of taste. About 1928, in one of the three genuinely funny jokes that Punch has produced since the Great War, an intolerable youth is pictured informing his aunt that he intends to ‘write.’ ‘And what are you going to write about, dear?’ asks the aunt. ‘My dear aunt,’ says the youth crushingly, ‘one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’

George Orwell

It is simply expression that gives reality to things.

Oscar Wilde

Ibsen not only invented modern drama but wrote a succession of plays which still form a substantial part of its entire repertoire. He found the Western stage empty and impotent and transformed it into a rich and immensely powerful art form, not only in his own country but throughout the world. Moreover, he not only revolutionized his art but changed the social thinking of his generation and the one that came after. What Rousseau had done for the late eighteenth century, he did for the late nineteenth century. Whereas Rousseau persuaded men and women to go back to nature and in so doing precipitated a collective revolution, Ibsen preached the revolt of the individual against the ancien régime of inhibitions and prejudices which held sway in every small town, indeed in every family. He taught men, and especially women, that their individual conscience and their personal notions of freedom have moral precedence over the requirements of society. In doing so he precipitated a revolution in attitudes and behaviour which began even in his own lifetime and has been proceeding, in sudden jumps and spasms, every since.

Paul Johnson (from Intellectuals, 1988)

Ibsen has throughout, and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitude as well as a doubting attitude towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life—a vagueness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil, some convention, some deception some ignorance. We know that the hero of Ghosts is mad, and we know why he is mad. We do also know that Dr. Stockman is sane; but we do not know why he is sane. Ibsen does not profess to know how virtue and happiness are brought about, in the sense that he professes to know how our modern sexual tragedies are brought about. Falsehood works ruin in The Pillars of Society, but truth works equal ruin in The Wild Duck. There are no cardinal virtues of Ibsenism. There is no ideal man of Ibsen. All this is not only admitted, but vaunted in the most valuable and thoughtful of all the eulogies upon Ibsen, Mr. Bernard Shaw’s “Quintessence of Ibsenism.” Mr. Shaw sums up Ibsen’s teaching in the phrase, “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” In his eyes this absence of an enduring and positive ideal, this absence of a permanent key to virtue, is the one great Ibsen merit. I am not discussing now with any fullness whether this is so or not. All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission, good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good. To us light must be henceforward the dark thing—the thing of which we cannot speak. To us, as to Milton’s devils in Pandemonium, it is darkness that is visible. The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained the knowledge of good and of evil. Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.

G. K. Chesterton (from Heretics, 1905)

We talk of art as something artificial in comparison with life. But I sometimes fancy that the very highest art is more real than life itself. At least this is true: that in proportion as passions become real they become poetical; the lover is always trying to be the poet. All real energy is an attempt at harmony and a high swing of rhythm; and even if we were only real enough we should all talk in rhyme.

G. K. Chesterton

Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.

George Bernard Shaw

Thoughts about Art & Literature

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon, whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell

It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.

Virginia Woolf

Art is like morality. Both consist in deciding where to draw the line.

G. K. Chesterton

Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame . . . The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless. It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits.

G. K. Chesterton

As I see it, in the twentieth century the genius of man has gone into science and the resultant technology, leaving the field of mysticism and imaginative art and literature almost entirely to charlatans and sick or obsessed minds.

Malcolm Muggeridge

A man’s artistic faculty is merely the means by which he communicates his vision of life, and however brilliant or complex it cannot purify a corrupted vision or deepen a shallow one.

Hugh Kingsmill

As the mythic and metaphorical language spoken by literature is primary language, and the only means of reaching any spiritual reality beyond language, then, if such reality exists, works of literature themselves represent a practically untapped source of self-transforming power.

Northrop Frye

Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.

G. K. Chesterton

Good art is still the best means human beings have devised to train perception.

Philip Marchand

The success of any work of art is achieved when we say of any subject, a tree or a cloud or a human character, “I have seen that a thousand times and I never saw it before.”

G. K. Chesterton

Great poetry always consists of ordinary words transfigured by extraordinary emotion.

Hugh Kingsmill

The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions: Dante’s is one of those which one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life... Shakespeare gives the greatest width of human passion; Dante the greatest altitude and greatest depth.

T. S. Eliot

I believe the artistic sense to be the true basis of moral rectitude.

George Bernard Shaw

Why is it . . . that in the broad spectrum of humanity writers should be the meanest, the pettiest, the most jealous, mudslinging, backstabbing, self-centered, conceited people who ever lived?

Ian Frazier

Literature is preoccupied with the significance of life while journalism is preoccupied with the phenomena.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Literature is news that stays news.

Ezra Pound

One of the ironies of the post-modernist school for depreciating literacy is its adherents are all people whose careers depend on the ability to sustain complex written arguments.

Robert Fulford

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement.

John F. Kennedy

Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.


No writer fully understands the implications of his own words.

George Woodcock

The primary and highest function of art is to deliver a message to the soul of man.

Ethelwyn M. Avery

Art is a continuation of politics by other means.

Adolf Hitler

The public does not like bad literature. The public likes a certain kind of literature and likes that kind of literature even when it is bad better than another kind of literature even when it is good.

G. K. Chesterton

The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good—in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

Robert Graves

The immature artist imitates. The mature artist steals.

Lionel Trilling

Originality is undetected plagiarism.

W. R. Inge

The whole meaning of literature is simply to cut a long story short.

G. K. Chesterton

There is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good.’ Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.

George Orwell

To interest is the first duty of art; no other excellences will even begin to compensate for failure in this, and very serious faults will be covered by this, as by charity.

C. S. Lewis

It is taken as basic by all the culture of our age that whenever artists and audience lose touch, the fault must be wholly on the side of the audience. (I have never come across the great work in which this important doctrine is proved.)

C. S. Lewis

Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.

Georges Simenon

Why did I write? whose sin to me unknown
Dipt me in ink, my parents’ or my own?

Alexander Pope

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