Art, Like Morality, Consists of Drawing the Line Somewhere

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? Anonymous?

hands10Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following remark on the webpage of an educator:

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.

The phrase was attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I have not been able to find it in his oeuvre. It was listed on websites like Goodreads and Quotationspage where it was ascribed to Wilde, but I know that websites with massive compilations of quotations are often packed with misinformation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote this statement.

In the 1920s the English author, journalist, and critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton penned a column in “The Illustrated London News”. In May 1928 he wrote a passage containing a strongly matching expression. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Some say that art is unmoral; and some of these arts are very unmoral. I may not have described them here in the correct conventional terms; but then I do not think that art is unmoral. Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

The positions of the terms “art” and “morality” have been switched when compared to the modern instance provided by the questioner. The phrase “drawing the line” wittily referred simultaneously to an artist physically drawing a line on a canvas and figuratively creating an artwork on a subject with moral implications.

This was the earliest strong match located by QI, and QI believes that G. K. Chesterton should be credited with the phrase he wrote and not Oscar Wilde.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1920 G. K. Chesterton wrote a precursor to the quotation in his column in “The Illustrated London News”. Chesterton compared and contrasted different political systems, and he argued that despotic systems were unable to recognize or accommodate the autonomy of the individual. The nascent phrase in the following excerpt did not include the word “morality”: 2

They could imagine no power except a power without limit. They lacked the power of the citizen, because it is like the power of the artist; it consists in drawing the line somewhere. The idea of the nation of kings is that every citizen respects every other citizen, as a king respects another king; not merely as a matter of equality but also of dignity.

In May 1928 G. K. Chesterton published an instance of the saying in “The Illustrated London News” as noted previously. Chesterton’s words were immediately noticed and reprinted by other scribes. For example, on May 29, 1928 a column called “As the World Wags” by Philip Hale in “The Boston Herald” in Massachusetts included the following item. The original phrase “of drawing” was slightly altered to yield “in drawing”: 3

Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.—G. K. Chesterton.

On June 29, 1928 “The Seattle Daily Times” printed the same modified version given above with “in drawing” ascribed to G. K. Chesterton as a filler item. 4

On June 30, 1928 “The Biloxi Daily Herald” of Mississippi published a novel version with the word “must” and credited Chesterton: 5

G. K. Chesterton says that “Art, like morality, must draw the line somewhere”. Rather, we would say, must immorality, like art, draw the line somewhere.

In November 1928 a newspaper in Trenton, New Jersey incorporated a shortened version of the saying in a joke about modern art: 6

Chesterton is authority for the statement that “art consists in drawing the line somewhere.” Not modern art.

In 1943 the indefatigable compiler of quips Evan Esar published “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” and in the section for art he included the saying without attribution: 7

Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

In 1952 the influential New York columnist Franklin Pierce Adams placed a shortened version of the statement in the “FPA Book of Quotations”: 8

Art consists in drawing the line somewhere.
G. K. CHESTERTON (1874-1936)

In 1995 “the Disciplines of a Godly Man” by R. Kent Hughes printed an instance attributed to Chesterton in which the terms “morality” and “art” were swapped”: 9

God wants us to be men of principle. G. K. Chesterton said, “Morality, like art, consists in drawing a line somewhere.” We must let God’s Word draw the line, not culture.

By 2014 a variant of the saying was being ascribed to Oscar Wilde. For example, the website called “The Quotations Page” had the following: 10

Quotation #27555 from Michael Moncur’s (Cynical) Quotations:
Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.
Oscar Wilde

In conclusion, QI believes that G. K. Chesterton originated the statement printed in “The Illustrated London News” in 1928. During the decades afterwards, modified instances of the saying have been ascribed to him. In addition, a variant was constructed and incorrectly assigned to Oscar Wilde.

Image Notes: Sketch of Hand by Hans Holbein the Younger. G. K. Chesterton portrait by Ernest Herbert Mills in 1909. Both images obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

(Special thanks to Andrew Old whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Great thanks to Michael Quinion and Graeme Rymill for accessing the database of “The Illustrated London News” and verifying the quotations within digital images of the periodical. Thanks also to Even Hartmann Flood who located the saying in the collected works of G. K. Chesterton. Thanks to the maintainers of the website of the G. K. Chesterton society. Thanks to Soarpoints for a follow-up comment.)

Notes:

  1. 1928 May 5, Illustrated London News, Our Note Book by G. K. Chesterton, Quote Page 780, Column 1, London, England. (Gale NewsVault)
  2. 1920 June 5, Illustrated London News, Volume 67, Our Note Book by G. K. Chesterton, Quote Page 952, Column 2, London, England. (Gale NewsVault)
  3. 1928 May 29, Boston Herald, As the World Wags by Philip Hale, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1928 June 29, Seattle Daily Times, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 25, Column 2, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1928 June 30, The Biloxi Daily Herald, Business Men’s Vacation, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Biloxi, Mississippi. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1928 November 6, Trenton Evening Times, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 15, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: Art Definitions, Quote Page 63, Column 2, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1995, Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes, Quote Page 131, Published by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  10. Website: The Quotations Page, Article title: Quotation 27555 from Michael Moncur’s (Cynical) Quotations, Website description: “The Quotations Page is one of the oldest quotation sites on the Web”. (Accessed quotationspage.com on July 20, 2014)

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  1. Pingback: Chesterton, Gilbert Keith - "Our Note Book," Illustrated London News (5 May 1928) | WIST

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