Why art is quite useless

February 23, 2013

Oscar Wilde closed the 1891 preface to  the “Picture of Dorian Grey” with a most enigmatic epigram: “All art is quite useless.” All the Greek symbols of aesthetic majesty, all the Renaissance masterpieces that come to our days, the scraps of melodic perfection in Mozart, the lines of utter harmony in Shakespeare, his own fascinating aphorisms inclusively: they hold no function.

Upon learning this, it’s merely normal to exert your curiosity and, as Bernulf Clegg did back then, demand some competent explanations.

Dear Wilde never fudged responding to such enquiries with the sort of handwritten letters like the below shown.




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 realize 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.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

Has it clarified the concept? Do you adhere to his belief?

I myself find the word “useless” still too powerful to limit genuine art…

15 Responses to “Why art is quite useless”

  1. svensays Says:

    So art is useless – and still a lot of people use it! In other words: the impact of art is not wholly determined by the artist’s own intention.

  2. teamgloria Says:

    the ability to change one’s mood through an astonishing piece of music that makes you sob or get-up-and-dance and a painting that inspires a reverie of memory – yes, art is useless – in that we don’t use it.

    but we need it.

    at least we hunger for it.

    lovely post and quelle Find.


  3. “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.”

    Thus, he’s saying that Moods do not influence Action. I STRONGLY DISAGREE. Anyway, what’s wrong with “creating moods (emotional states)”? Creating or promoting Happiness is not the most useless endeavor I can think of. Quite the opposite, actually.

    Excellent, as always,

    P.S. Your work definitely affects my mood … and in a good way. Makes me happy. And when I’m happy, I tend feel more disposed toward doing more good for others. It DOES work.

    • mais quelle gentil déclaration, Knotty! it’s all quite reciprocal, though… your constant feedback motivates me to increase Madame’s blog activity every single time!
      and yes, moods are often essential to set our course of action… in this regard, art is effectively the opposite of useless

      • Cool! We agree.

        Monsieur Descartes was right in that if one can think, then s/he must exist. But I would add that one must also FEEL to be truly alive.

        Keep ’em comin’, Madame!

      • On a certain level, our thinking does control feeling… The reverse I’m not sure of… Because that would open new perspectives of causality and much explain why art affects us thus.

  4. Annemarie Says:

    by a simple chance i have come across your post but it interests me greatly. I like the statement and incredibly enjoy Oscar Wilde and especially Dorian Gray.

    “All art is quite useless.” is indeed a powerful statement but as Luis Barragan also says ”Art is made by the alone for the alone”

    I tend to agree and disagree with both of the statements. 🙂 Art may be quite useless when it is being looked at, listened or even felt. But it is never useless or in the way pointless to the person making the art.

    One comment above expressed a rather interesting metaphor of a flower growing for it’s own joy. The tree grows the flower and to him the flower is neither useless nor is it pointless.

    I believe art is a form of healing, a form of catharsis therefor in can never be useless and i also believe art makes us more human, sensitive to the world around it teaches us to experience the world in a differently, it stops us from becoming robots addicted to routine and monotony. It makes life a bit more colorful.


  5. Annemarie Says:

    it is indeed ^_^

  6. Hi, I stumbled across your blog and like the post above. It’s an eternal “discussion point”. I revere Oscar Wilde & he was a singular sort of genius, but- in order to strike something of a pose perhaps- he badly over-reached himself with his statements above. Every thinking person knows that exposure to great art, perhaps great literature most of all, expands and enlarges the soul, our sense of understanding about the world & our fellow humans, our sympathies, our depth and tolerance. It makes us more “human” in fact, and has been instrumental in the shaping of a complex modern consciousness and identity, in our very sense of self, and what self means. If that is all “useless” or “pointless”, well… Of course Wilde knew it was nothing of the sort, his attitude here is something of a pose, an affectation. His own plays, say for example “A Woman of No Importance” or indeed any of the beautiful stories he wrote for children, prove the point, that on this issue he is merely striking a pose, and trying to posit an unsustainable position. The only thing thing I will say in his defense is that we should look at his statement in the context and culture of the time he made it. The Victorians were big into moral lessons, in their art and literature, even their architecture and furniture design. John Ruskin, especially held this sort of moral view, and he was amazingly instrumental & influential in shaping the thoughts and ideas of the artists, writers, designers and architects of his day. That therefore is the context and background in which Wilde made his statements. And perhaps he was simply trying to readjust a sort of balance and say that art really could just be: “Art for Art’s Sake” The Aesthete (dandy) Movement of which Wilde (and people like Aubrey Beardsley) were figureheads, were essentially Re-acting, to & partly against the “Ruskin generation” before them. If you know the Victorian period well; you’ll know that many of its artistic expressions: say Gothic Revival, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; the Arts & Crafts movement, etc, etc… are all Full of moral vigour, and “moral purpose”. So, if we read Wilde in that context… well, you know what I mean. Nice blog, good to find it. -Arran.

    • Yes, I completely understand your point. Oscar Wilde, as any other genius throughout history, whether we speak of Socrates or Heidegger, should be interpreted in the code of his age.

  7. aubrey Says:

    In that same preface, he also wrote that “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” I think that the word ‘admire’ can lead one down quite a merry path: a path of emotion and memory that can define one’s very humanity. I believe that Oscar Wilde said that art is useless as sort of a smack in the face of Victorian industry. He viewed art as a decadent decoration, indolent as the flower he mentions, full of beauty and emotion, with no interest in land, or money, or buildings, of any other city trappings: the ‘useful’ things that he mentions in the same preface. Those lines were an introduction to the pretty debaucharies the reader would find in the novel.

    I think he used ‘sterile’ as another word for ‘still’ – I know that the first time I saw Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings, I was forced to close the book and keep still for a moment. Such a staggering beauty renders one unable to do anything but contemplate and ‘admire’.

    • Indeed, he would write it to emphasize the existence of a great gap between genuine art and the Victorian pragmatism he mocks across the novel… It is, for this reason, important to understand it, as you suggested, with regard to his previous statements and from there draw a meaning.

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