A Truth in Art Is That Whose Contradictory Is Also True

Oscar Wilde? Niels Bohr? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes a narrow logical analysis is not enough to understand a topic. In the realm of art, the negation of a truth may yield another truth. The famous wit Oscar Wilde once made a claim of this type. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: The 1891 book “Intentions” by Oscar Wilde contained an essay titled “The Truth of Masks” in which Wilde boldly indicated that he sometimes disagreed with himself. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1895 a collection of Wilde’s bon mots titled “Oscariana: Epigrams” included the saying: 2

In art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.

An essay published in 1949 by physicist Niels Bohr included a thematically related observation: 3

. . . the so-called “deep truths,” are statements in which the opposite also contains deep truth.

In 1982 the essay “The Truth of Masks” was reprinted in “The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde” edited by Richard Ellman. Thus, the quotation achieved further circulation. 4

In 2006 the collection “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms” included the saying: 5

… in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. The Truth of Masks (Works, p1173)

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde deserves credit for the remark in his 1891 essay “The Truth of Masks”.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of two arrows pointing in opposite directions from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Daniel Sandberg and Mark Wainwright whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Both of them asked about the saying attributed Niels Bohr, and QI took a detour to create this article.)

Notes:

  1. 1891, Intentions by Oscar Wilde, Essay: The Truth of Masks, Start Page 179, Quote Page 212, Heinemann and Balestier, Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1895, Oscariana: Epigrams, Section: The Critic as Artist, Quote Page 27, Privately Printed, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1959 (1949 Copyright), Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, Chapter 7: Discussion with Einstein On Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics by Niels Bohr, Quote Page 240, Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1982, The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Richard Ellman, Intentions (1891), The Truth of Masks: A Note On Illusion, Start Page 408, Quote Page 432, Phoenix Edition; The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  5. 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, Chapter 4: Art, Quote Page 33, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)