Aesthetes and troublemakers against narrowing of thinking: Oscar Wilde is needed again! This is shown by the exhibition "The Critic as Artist" in Reading.
When art stares into space, criticism can reach its peak Photo: Owen Williams
Inertia becomes the highest form of criticism. We believe in aesthetes and querulous." That’s the first of the 21-point manifesto "The Critic as Artist," written by Brit Andrew Hunt especially for the exhibition of the same title currently on view at the Reading Arts Festival in England.
Hunt, author and one of the festival’s artistic directors, has kept the tone of the 21 demands in the ductus of classic political manifestos. In it, he opposes the common practice of judging works of art solely on their utility value.
The exhibition and manifesto celebrate the Irish writer and playwright Oscar Wilde and his theoretical writings on aestheticism and art criticism. Wilde gave his famous 1891 essay "The Critic as Artist" the subtitle "With Some Notes on the Importance of Doing Nothing."
"Wilde had in mind that one should give oneself over to contemplation, sit back and let art take effect on one. That, he said, was the most modern and desirable form of criticism. And of course, like almost everything else about Oscar Wilde, it’s a serious joke," says London-based writer and cultural critic Michael Bracewell, who co-curated the exhibition with Hunt.
"Art criticism today thinks complacently".
"The Critic as Artist," Reading Museum, through Jan. 28, 2018.
On view are works by 17 British artists, contemporaries of Wilde and today. The large- and small-scale paintings, drawings, installations, photographs, and collages are spread throughout the Reading Museum’s rooms and stairwell. Seemingly without intention, the works are placed amidst the museum’s permanent collection and its ancient artworks.
The manifesto is a clever play on convention, Michael Bracewell explains: some of Wilde’s theses are taken verbatim. "Today’s art criticism thinks insularly and is complacent, everything is beery serious. ‘Oh, look, Donald Trump is commenting on that.’ The Manifesto, on the other hand, says, ‘No, relax! Enjoy the art, sit back, because you’ll learn far more in the process than by solely projecting lofty theories onto an exhibit."
During his imprisonment in Reading, Wilde wrote about suffering in prison
Born in Dublin in 1854, Oscar Wilde’s name is associated with cliched notions of dandyism and fancy bon mots like "I have very simple tastes: I am only ever satisfied with the best," which today is appropriated by the gift industry. With "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891), his only darkly creepy novel about a young con man, Wilde delivered a socially critical commentary on the hedonistic English upper class in the Victorian era – and introduced homoeroticism into English literature.
Wilde himself was punished for his homosexuality in 1895 to two years in the penitentiary in Reading, a small town west of London. The sophisticated, articulate man of letters was a broken man after his release and died impoverished in exile in Paris in 1900.
"Not Only Gay, Brilliant Too"
"In England, Oscar Wilde is mainly perceived as a martyr in the fight for gay rights. We felt that this kind of remembrance culture was too one-sided. After all, Wilde was not only gay and therefore in prison. He was also a brilliant theorist, and a very entertaining one at that," says Bracewell.
While imprisoned in Reading, Wilde wrote "De Profundis," a book-length letter addressed to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. It is one of the "most gripping documents of human suffering and human self-conquest," as Gisela Hesse writes in the afterword of the German edition. In it, Wilde aestheticizes the suffering he experienced in prison – in particular, the way he treated imprisoned children shocked him – and thus transforms it into an art form. In 2016, an exhibition at Reading Prison, which has now been empty for four years, focused attention on this part of Wilde’s life and work. Stars such as U.S. musician Patti Smith and actor Ralph Fiennes read "De Profundis" aloud at the site where it was written.
Bracewell and Hunt, on the other hand, focus on the other, the anarchic Wilde, who expresses fundamental thoughts on aestheticism in the preface to "The Portrait of Dorian Gray." It culminates in the sentence, "All art is utterly useless."
Accordingly, the curators have brought together anarchic and aesthetic artists. In the narrow, carpeted stairwell, "Catherine" (2008) draws the eye: in Alessandro Raho’s painting, a woman climbs a staircase entwined with greenery, her gaze backward over her shoulder, into the void. His portrait of "Jessica" (2010) in the room next door shows a teenager in sneakers and casual clothing in front of floral wallpaper. The arrangement is reminiscent of a shot taken in a second-rate photography studio. "Raho is an artist whose large-scale portraits want to be beautiful first and foremost, focusing on people," Bracewell says.
Vicious, unafraid of authority
Also hanging across several rooms are three rare paintings by Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Salomon. He was a contemporary of Wilde’s who, as a Jew, alcoholic and homosexual, was clearly considered an outsider in Victorian society. Oscar Wilde once collected his timelessly beautiful paintings.
Ceramic tableware from the Aestheticism period is on display in a glass case. It comes from the collection of the artist couple Gilbert & George, who, as Bracewell notes, are interestingly anarchic anti-artists, but their preference as collectors belongs entirely to Victorian aesthetics and pre-Raphaelite art.
A book is displayed under the dishes. It features a storyboard, purple drawings about Oscar Wilde, and purple lettering. It’s by Malcolm McLaren, the infamous Sex Pistols manager and artist who, endowed with Hollywood money, wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll musical about Oscar Wilde, set in the Wild West: "The Wilde West: A Hollywood Tale." Bracewell calls McLaren a Wildean figure in the purest sense: dandy, sparkling with wit, a brilliant orator, a troublemaker. McLaren published parts of his storyboard in the U.S. music magazine Dazed and Confused in 2005.
It is fitting that the British punk poet Bertie Marshall performs at the exhibition opening; with a megaphone, he sits on one of the two wooden staircase installations by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, "A Room For Wilde" (2017), which ascend into nowhere, sometimes belaboring, sometimes sonorously reading poems, but also largely meaningless lyrics from songs by Lana Del Rey. This, too, gives the commemoration of Oscar Wilde a framework, who was able to sharpen and quote viciously and fearlessly take on the authorities. Throughout the exhibition, performers will recite Wilde texts of their choice there. Chaimowicz has installed the walk-up staircases to create space for the other artists’ works.
The critic? Must be more creative than the artist!
Hanging centrally in the room is "Like a Painting #1" (2005) by fashion photographer Miles Aldridge. The chromogenic print shows a porcelain-skinned young woman in half-profile, her hairstyle and gown are Victorian, her cheeks flushed, her vacant gaze lowered, butterflies fluttering around her, together with the algae-like embroidery on her dress and the flower hedge in the background, the image glows with morbid beauty. "In the Garden" (2017) shows subtle deviation: the Victorian-style beauty depicted has one breast exposed. Born in Belfast in 1979, Donna Huddleston brings together two style icons in the shadowy drawing "Oscar and Nico" (2017).
Feminist artist Linder, who grew up in Manchester’s punk and post-punk scene, is represented by the collage "Johnny Ray" (2017). Under a photo of the American singer, who enjoyed great success with highly emotional performances in the early 1950s, a cover of a gay magazine is emblazoned, the shame of the naked, headless man is covered with a rose. Butterflies buzz around it, snakes announce the expulsion from paradise, an owl, symbol of wisdom and prudence, looks benevolently at the viewer. Cut-out mouths with parted lips are scattered throughout the collage.
Bracewell wanted to relate Wilde’s 19th century ideas to 21st century art. This approach, he says, proved very refreshing, because in the 21st century, critics tend to look at art and music from a philosophical point of view or underpinned by Marxist theory. Wilde simply urged "express your feelings, record your sense impressions." If the critic is thus more creative than the work being judged, he has achieved the highest form of criticism.