What is the purpose of art? Pablo Picasso believed it was to wash the dust of daily life off our souls while Proust contended it was to reawaken us to extraordinary beauty of the ordinary world. Leo Tolstoy held that the aim of art was to instruct: we read and write stories to be better people. According to the great Russian novelist, we should read Pride and Prejudice— not for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s witty banter or the delightful charm of high society and British manners — but to learn valuable lessons about love. Romance is not enough, Jane Austen teaches us, and we shouldn’t judge a potential paramour on first impressions alone.
Aesthetes, on the other hand, held the philosophy of “l’art pour l’art”: art for art’s sake. A 19th century intellectual and artistic movement, aestheticism asserted art was valuable in and of itself— it didn’t need to have a moral purpose. Unlike Tolstoy, the aesthetes, most notably poet, playwright, and lover of lavish capes Oscar Wilde, maintained art (at least, good art anyway) was concerned with one thing: beauty. Art seduced the senses; it didn’t stand on a soapbox to lecture or promote a political opinion.
Needless to say, aesthetes who made art for its own sake were condemned as degenerate debauchees and hedonistic pleasure seekers. As 19th century Europe entered the industrial revolution, factories rose, millions moved from the quiet countryside to the noisy commotion of crowded cities, and goods that once took months to make could be produced quickly on a mass scale. In the efficiency-obsessed industrial age, it was thought immoral to pursue pointless pleasure. After all, what’s the “use” of a poem or painting or sculpture? Why labor to capture the loneliness of a diner in the middle of the night or the loveliness of a floral tea cup, jar of apricots and loaf of bread when you could be doing something useful? Art seems frivolous when there are crops to grow and railroads to build.
In this clever, charming 1890 letter to one of his fans, Wilde concedes that all art is rather useless. Much like a flower or sunrise or sunset, art is a thing of beauty— that’s it. But just because art is useless doesn’t mean it has no value. Though our capitalistic society contends a thing is only worthwhile if it can be exchanged for dollars and cents, making art is its own reward. As Brenda Ueland wrote in her endearing classic, one of the most important intrinsic rewards of making art is the “stretched understanding, the illumination. By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it. In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.” With his trademark irreverence, Wilde explains that—above all— art brings us bliss:
“My dear Sir
Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.
A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.
Our society tells us that writing a book is only worthwhile if it becomes a New York Times bestseller, a film only if it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture. If our portrait of a Parisian couple never hangs in the Louvre and is only ever featured on the mantel of our mother’s living room, we will be fools; if we dedicate our lives to our art but never “make it”— never publish our work, never experience the exhilaration of seeing our book at Barnes and Noble— we will have failed. Why had we worked so hard? Why did we devote years to something that never “got us anywhere”? Wasn’t all that time a waste if— like Franz Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe, and Vincent Van Gogh— our work was lost to the dusty oblivion of history and we died tragically unknown?
For Wilde, the answer is a resounding no. Even if we write a book no one reads or toil for years and squander our life savings to make a film audiences loathe, we should not regret it. We’re always better for having created.