Curated by Michael Bracewell and Andrew Hunt.
‘The Critic as Artist’ is an exhibition at Reading Museum about and for the Irish writer and dramatist Oscar Wilde, who had been a visitor to Reading prior to his imprisonment at Reading Gaol, and whose ideas and legend remain startlingly contemporary.
Appropriately, the museum in Reading is housed in a building partially designed by Waterhouse which opened in 1883, the year Wilde set sail to ‘declare his genius’ to America. Rather than focus on Wilde’s sensational and tragic downfall, as is too often the case, ‘The Critic as Artist’ examines the author’s theories of aesthetics and art criticism, which advocated freedom from moral restraint and the limitations of society, as well as the creative ability of criticism to reach beyond the limitations of the work of art. These were and remain radical, integral to a developing idea of ‘the modern’ and above all joyously balanced between seriousness, ironic play, provocation, poetry and paradox.
With this in mind, the exhibition is titled after Wilde’s celebrated essay of 1891, in which he lays out the central points of his aesthetic and art critical theories. Wilde subtitled his essay, ‘With some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing’ – championing indolence as necessary to artistic cultivation, and pose, repose and contemplation as elevated modes of existence – very much in the lineage of what Kierkegaard had previously defined as the ‘glittering inactivity’ of the aesthetic state.
Combining the historical and the contemporary, notions of the cult of the beautiful with the role of the critic, symbolist fantasy and the many-layered relationships between life, morality and art, ‘The Critic as Artist’ aims to combine substantial homage and renewed interpretation of Wildean aesthetic theory, while remaining very much in the spirit of his own serious play – the ‘new Hellenism’ of artistic ideas.