"The Critic as Artist" was one of the essays included in Wilde's only book of criticism, Intentions (1891). Written in the three years after Matthew Arnold's death and praised by Pater, Wilde's book of criticism clearly echoes and builds upon the ideas of both men.
"The Critic as Artist" is a written dialogue between two friends, Ernest and Gilbert, in two acts. Generally, Ernest asks questions of Gilbert; thus, Gilbert seems Wilde's spokesperson for his philosophy of criticism. (Occasionally, Ernest also summarizes what Gilbert has said, proving himself a crucial tool for getting across Wilde's ideas as well).
Part I: In the first part of the dialogue (subtitled "with some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing"), Gilbert is playing the piano, and Ernest has been perusing a book. They soon get into a conversation about the use of "art-criticism," wherein Ernest asks why the artist might not be left alone. Gilbert launches into an invective against art criticism which seeks too much to explain. On a tangent inspired by his disdain for explanatory societies like the Browning Society, Gilbert praises Robert Browning as a Shakespearean writer because of his capacity to enter into so many different characters' voices. Ernest soon stops Gilbert and states that "in the best days of art there were no art-critics." Following from this question Gilbert once again offers a long answer--this time, vehemently contradicting Ernest by telling him the Greeks were in fact the best critics of all in that they embodied the "critical spirit" in their arts.
Ernest is soon convinced that Gilbert is right, and he then moves on to his next statement (this is the controlling pattern of both dialogues), that the creative faculty must be higher than the critical, to which Gilbert replies that it is the critical spirit which most crucially innovates. Gilbert believes in the power of the individual to innovate--indeed, he says that "it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who creates the age." It is the critical spirit that "rewrites history," showing a new way of understanding life. Like Arnold, Gilbert critiques the Victorian "man of action"who is tediously self-denying and industrious: in contrast, the critic is the individual who will move the world forward through his ideas. While Arnold suggests that such ideas will then fuel correct action, Gilbert seems to go even further by casting aside action as "puppetry," and embracing entirely the mind-world of criticism as "poetry.
In elaborating on his point, Gilbert makes his statements on the "critic as artist": "the critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought." In other words, the critic and what is traditionally understood as an artist are equivalent, and differ only in the material which inspires their works. In fact, criticism is the highest art according to Gilbert because the critic forms a creation within a creation, and hence is removed from the problems and trap of realistic representation: the "shackles of verisimilitude." Ultimately, as Pater also says, Gilbert says that the critic's subject is autobiographic in the sense that it "chronicle[s] his own impressions." Individual impressions may vary, and Gilbert announces that it completely doesn't matter if Pater's impressions of the Mona Lisa are "untrue" insofar that Pater's impressions don't truly reflect Leonardo da Vinci's intents because the primary aim of the critic, in chronicling his own impressions, is really "to see the object as in itself it really is not." This clever reversal of Arnold, of course, is not a real reversal, as Gilbert basically identifies the same kind of innovative critical spirit of Arnold's. Finally, like Pater, Gilbert closes the first part of the dialogue with his valuation of music for its formal identity and absence of subject matter.
Part II: After pausing for supper, the dialogue picks up again on the same topics (although this section is subtitled, "with some remarks upon the importance of discussing everything"). Ernest dives right in and asks Gilbert if the critic is never an interpreter, if his business is innovation and not explanation. Gilbert explains that the material of historical context is indeed relevant to a piece of art or literature, but the critic ought not to use this material in order to "treat Art as a riddling Sphinx." Instead, the critic ought to make the work of art even more mysterious, in order to multiply its impressions. He mixes in his own "personality" with the art, and the art is made "vivid and wonderful" by this "new and intense personality." Importantly, this kind of criticism keeps art of the past alive for the present day.
Gilbert then delineates an essential difference, as he sees it, between life and art. From an "artistic point of view," life is a failure, because it is sordid, messy, and ugly in its form. Art offers a way of experiencing myriad exquisite emotions without the "mess" of life. Gilbert asks, affectingly, "are there not books that can make us live more in a single hour than life can make us live in a score of shameful years?" In a word, art "can teach us how to escape from our experience, and to realize the experience of those who are greater than we are."
When Ernest begins to protest that art seems "immoral," Gilbert confirms this to be true, but says that this is essentially the point: morals come from society's code of ethics, which is limited and which tends to prevent human individuals from the important act of contemplation. For Gilbert, England needs much less the question of "what are you doing" and more the question of "what are you thinking"?
Ernest then asks what the function of the critical spirit is, and Gilbert gives an exceedingly Arnoldian answer (complete with a quote from Arnold) that it perfects culture, and through the workings of the critical spirit on culture, we reach "the best that is known and thought in the world."Like Arnold, Gilbert critiques Puritan, middle-class ethics of sentimental philanthropy, advocating instead for a "sympathy with thought" which locates itself in the realm of ideas, and the realm of artistic temperament. In other words, as Pater suggests, Gilbert suggests a kind of intellectual, temperamental kinship through the ages.
Near the final part of the two men's dialogue, Gilbert rejects Ernest's premises that art is fair, rational, or sincere, as these are the terms of a moralistic and narrow universe. The aesthetic universe with which Gilbert concerns himself, however, is not one that doesn't care about life or society: rather, it seeks to reform society through instilling the critical spirit in each and every one of its members. "Art is out of the reach of morals, for her eyes are fixed upon eternal truths." This might be realized through an education which encourages the self-consciously critical spirit, first through such avenues as an appreciation for the decorative arts, which attunes an individual to form (rather than subject matter). Attention to forms prevents the "tedious realism" which tends to stultify innovative thought. Gilbert proclaims that it is the mission of the aesthetic movement to "lure people to contemplate," to think innovative thoughts and not to try to copy the world. Idealistically, Gilbert believes that "Intellectual criticism will bind Europe together in bonds far closer than those that can be forged by the shopman or sentimentalist," respectively, the capitalist or the philanthropist (see above).
Gilbert's closing paean to form immediately begs the question of form in Wilde's piece. Taking Wilde on the terms of his own game, the dialogue impresses the absence of an authorial didactic voice, perhaps then allowing the ideas to kind of float more freely and independently. I argue that this absence renders the ideas more palatable, and furthermore, encourages readers to get away from the question of authorial intent which bogs down the innovative spirit of critical response.
Additionally, I suggest that the dialogue models how one acquires and maintains a critical spirit. While the dialogue is skewed clearly in favor of Gilbert's ideas, Ernest's quick understanding, and his capacity to quickly summarize what Gilbert has said, and ability to ask productive questions make him an apt model for what is meant by independent learning. Ernest is earnest, and he is bright, and I think the work suggests that we are to emulate him. He does not merely accept Gilbert's word, but he allows himself the room to ask questions, and requires Gilbert to spend time elaborating. When Ernest summarizes Gilberts ideas, he essentially "tries them on" for himself, but then quickly moves to his next question. This is the very spirit which Gilbert describes: one need not be consistent, but in order to truly realize the truth of oneself, one must try on different modes of thought, checking them all the while with the material of one's own heart (this is, I argue, the most "Millian" moment of Wilde's essay--it mirrors Mill's contention that we arrive closest to truth by first gaining the ability to ventriloquize the thoughts of others).