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There was an intense debate about the purpose of art in the Victorian period which traces back to theories of art derived from classical antiquity and continues to the present. Why do we look at art (or read books)? Why have students for thousands of years been required, in almost all known cultures, to read poetry in school?
One justification for the arts is that they are useful in so far as they provide moral exempla, and offer up ethical thought in a manner that is pleasing and memorable, and thus more efficacious than other forms of moral discourse. Theologians (including Dante) argued that because God is unknowable, poetry, because it can point towards the transcendent is more effective theology than prose tracts.
Wilde opposes these positions, arguing that art has no moral purpose and therefore should be judged purely on aesthetic grounds. Wilde’s notion of the uselessness of art was in direct opposition to critics like Matthew Arnold who saw art as having a moral and theological purpose.
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