Wilde is full of contradictions and ironies, but it is a natural tendency to dig through the contradictions in order to uncover some layered, broad statement, some fundamental belief that Wilde did not waver upon. Yet in our discussion of “House Beautiful” and “Woman’s Dress” we challenged this tendency, and explored the idea that Wilde may have changed his mind, or written things he didn’t mean, or that he meant in one instance but not in another. Perhaps we did to Wilde what he argues – or at least seems to argue at times – that one should not do to art; we looked for purpose.
First, we associated Wilde with the decadent idea of art for the sake of art, and then were dutifully shocked when he stated that art “fosters morality,” and is “needed to temper and counteract the sordid materialism of the age.” He gave art a stated purpose. Perhaps he was merely attempting to gain popular appeal, or perhaps his opinions were simply not fully formed. However, it also seems altogether possible that Wilde meant it when he said that art is for morality just as he meant it when he implied that art should be solely for the sake of art. It is human to be paradoxical. There need not be some deeper meaning hidden behind the contradiction; perhaps sometimes art is one thing, and other times another, and often both at the same time.
In fact, Wilde provides us with a example of art being both purposeful and purely for the sake of art in “Woman’s Dress” through his discussion of clogs. He praises them for being practical and comfortable, indicating that they have purpose. Yet he also notes, that “much art has been expended on clogs,” observing that they may be “delicately inlaid with ivory, and with mother-of-pearl.” The clogs are practical, but may also become art, given the proper decoration for the sake of decoration. A similar comparison appears in “House Beautiful,” in the discussion of craftsmen and artists. Craftsmen can create art with purpose, but for the craft to earn a different connotation of art – one more elevated, decorative, or decadent – there must be a true artist, not just a handicraftsman, involved.
Yet this combination of purpose and art for art does not quite work. In “House Beautiful,” there is plenty of talk of art used for the purpose of embodying ideas and sanctifying life, and in “Woman’s Dress” it is debatable whether an undecorated pair of clogs would qualify as art. However, there is no need to reconcile art-for-art and art-for-purpose. There is no final truth in doing so, just as there is no final truth in meshing Wilde’s statements in these essays with his later works. Perhaps art, Wilde, and our interpretations of Wilde’s writings, unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) demonstrate the beauty of inconsistency. – YG