During Wilde’s cross-examination in the first trial, Wilde’s work seems on trial more than Wilde himself. Each time the opposing attorney references Wilde’s artistic allusions to homosexuality, Wilde flips the narrative to address the craftsmanship and artistic beauty rather than the content. He champions the message that resonates throughout his work: art cannot be moral or immoral, but it can be artistic or crude. He is focused on style.
Wilde does not seem to care what people think of the content of his work except in denying that it incriminates him. Instead, he urges the audience- for this seems to be a performance- to appreciate the beauty he creates. Regarding a letter he wrote to Bosie, which the cross-examiner presents as evidence of an improper relationship, Wilde states: “This is a beautiful letter. It is a poem. I was not writing an ordinary letter. You might as well cross-examine me as to whether King Lear or a sonnet of Shakespeare’s is proper.” Wilde maintains that even his letters are artistic rather than purely functional. When he brings up another homosexual story, The Priest and the Acolyte, Wilde refuses to address the content but condemns it for poor writing. Each time the cross-examiner attempts to address homosexuality in various written works, Wilde returns to form.
However, this reframing does not deter the cross-examiner, who shifts his focus away from homosexuality and instead on Wilde’s artistic philosophy. Instead of looking for what he calls “perverted content,” he briefly attacks Wilde for his amoral view of literature. He presents Wilde’s philosophy as dangerous because it does not condemn immoral content; thus, a perverted book might be “good.” There seems to be underlying anxiety that if people consume art merely because it is well written, its content may corrupt them. Society presents a rigid sense of what is unacceptable, and Wilde’s flippant attitude about content rattles that construct, at least as it appears in art.
I think that the first trial was a fight over artistic ideals and ultimately came down to the questions that Wilde himself poses in Dorian Gray: Can art corrupt? Can art be dangerous? Should those who view art only look at the surface? Wilde seems to anticipate the controversy over his work years before it is brought up in court.