Quote Origin: The Moment You Think You Understand a Great Work of Art, It’s Dead for You

Oscar Wilde? Robert Wilson? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: Major works of art are complex, ambiguous, and difficult to interpret. The vitality of a piece is compromised when a single meaning is imposed on it. Apparently, an artist once said something like this:

The moment you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.

This remark has been attributed to the famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde and the prominent U.S. theater director Robert Wilson. I am skeptical of the linkage to Wilde. Would you please help me to find the correct ascription together with a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in “The New York Times” in May 1990. The article reported on a new experimental production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Frankfurt, Germany helmed by Robert Wilson who was described as “the P. T. Barnum of the avant-garde”. Wilson employed the quotation while discussing “King Lear”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

“The work is a hall of mirrors, and the kaleidoscope of reflections intrigues me. Another reason I want to do the play is because we don’t understand it. The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”

QI has found no evidence that Oscar Wilde employed this expression. The quotation does not appear in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” compiled by Ralph Keyes,2 nor does it occur in “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms” compiled by Tweed Conrad.3

Below are additional selected citations together with a conjecture about the genesis of the misattribution to Oscar Wilde.

In 1894 Oscar Wilde contributed a collection of witticisms titled “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” to a student periodical. Below are three of the items. One remark suggested that understanding a religion via science could lead to its death:4

A really well-made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature.

Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.

The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.

Robert Wilson’s comment about art was noticed by a journalist at “The Observer” of London. In May 1990 the quotation appeared in a section called “Sayings of the week”.5 Later, in December 1990 the newspaper listed Wilson’s statement in “Sayings of the year”:6

The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you. — Robert Wilson, theatre director.

QI hypothesizes that the misattribution to Oscar Wilde was due to a misreading of two adjacent entries in the 1993 reference “The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations”. The first entry was for a quotation by Oscar Wilde and the next entry was for a quotation by Robert Wilson:7

123 Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.

OSCAR WILDE (1854–1900). Anglo-Irish playwright, author. “House Decoration,” lecture, 1882 (published in Aristotle at Afternoon Tea: The Rare Oscar Wilde, 1991).

124 The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.

ROBERT WILSON (b. 1941). U.S. theater director, designer. Quoted in: International Herald Tribune (Paris, 22 May 1990).

One or more readers of the above passage were attracted to the name of Oscar Wilde whose fame eclipses that of Wilson. These readers carelessly reassigned Wilson’s quotation to Wilde. This behavior fits a known error mechanism for the generation of misattributions.

In 2003 the quotation with a correct attribution continued to circulate in the “Star Tribune” of Minneapolis, Minnesota:8

“The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”
— Robert Wilson, U.S. theater director.

In 2006 “The Village Voice” of New York published “The Whole Ball of Wax — Can Art Change the World? A Holistic Theory” by Jerry Saltz which credited the quotation to Oscar Wilde:9

These latter-day Cartesians act like coroners, regularly pronouncing dead that which they don’t approve of or can’t explain. They say the author is dead, painting is dead, history is dead, and so on. As Midgley points out, ‘Imaginative-systems don’t suddenly perish and they don’t go away until the things they were invented to deal with have been resolved.’ Or as Oscar Wilde remarked, ‘The moment you think you understand a work of art it’s dead for you.’

In 2012 the “Family & Home Examiner” published a set of statements about art:10

It can be beautiful. It can be ugly. It can move you to feel a certain way and provoke you. Today’s quotes are about art and how it makes us think.
. . .
“The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”
-Oscar Wilde

In conclusion, Robert Wilson should receive credit for this quotation based on the 1990 citation in “The New York Times”. The attribution to Oscar Wilde is unsupported.

Image Note: Picture of the 1889 oil painting titled “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Isaiah Campbell whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Campbell pointed to the citation in “The New York Times” and was skeptical of the attribution to Oscar Wilde.

  1. 1990 May 20, New York Times, ‘Lear’ Girds for a Remarkable Episode by Arthur Holmberg, Quote Page H7, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  2. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Compiled by Ralph Keyes, Note: Quotation with phrase “dead for you” was absent in this reference, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  3. 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, Note: Quotation with phrase “dead for you” was absent in this reference, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  4. 1894, The Chameleon, Volume 1, Number 1, Edited by John Francis Bloxam, Article: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Gay and Bird, London. (British Library website; accessed bl.uk on November 10, 2021) link ↩︎
  5. 1990 May 27, The Observer, Sayings of the week, Quote Page 18, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1990 December 30, The Observer, Sayings of the year, Quote Page 16, Column 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Robert Andrews, Topic: Art, Quote Page 61, Column 1, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  8. 2003 January 19, Star Tribune, Today’s Quote, Quote Page F1, Column 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 2006 September 5, The Village Voice, Section: Art, The Whole Ball of Wax — Can Art Change the World? A Holistic Theory by Jerry Saltz, Unspecified Page Number, New York, New York. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩︎
  10. 2012 May 17, Family & Home Examiner, Section: Quotations Examiner, Quotes about art, Unspecified Page Number, U.S.A. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩︎
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