In Defence of Useless Things

‘All art is quite useless’ declared Oscar Wilde, and in doing so summarised succinctly the traditional discipline of aesthetic appreciation, and beauty. ‘Art is useless,’ thought Wilde, ‘because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility.’

In other words, though we may engage in artistic exercises for a decided upon purpose – to express a personal grievance, a political goal, a moral statement and so on – a work of art may have a purpose, but art itself is not prescriptive in inciting any action that follows the interaction with the art.

A poet may sit down, for instance, to generate a poem that will make every person who reads it cry from happiness – and if in the process of another person reading it, she too will feel the same ecstatic joy, that is merely a happy accident – but not all poets will do the same; and even if they did, they would not do only that. Poets might write upsetting things, or uplifting things. In other words, an art style is not by itself prescriptive – we cannot say that ‘all poetry is happy’, for instance. And therefore, while artists might engage in a work of art for a purpose, it is the purposeless of art itself that allows such ‘artistic freedom’: we do not say, by the same logic, that ‘all poetry is political’.

Instead, the aesthetic discipline says that art is something in which we engage – as either artists or as an audience – for its own sake, first and foremost. This is not to say there are no formal rules for art in itself: the production of music, for example, is a standard against which to judge the enjoyability of a piece of music. If you think this is incorrect, consider when the poor production of a song has obstructed your own enjoyment of it. We can say, essentially, that music is the consciously enjoyable assemblage of artificial sounds (the subjective interpretation of enjoyment is by-the-by), and so any production that obscures the original intention of the piece – to produce enjoyable sounds – has marred the artwork, and ‘made it bad’.

But what takes the ‘superbly sterile’ product as produced by the artist and transforms it into a pleasing thing for some, and an ugly thing for others? Why do you enjoy the Beatles, but I can’t stand them? Why does he enjoy Allen Ginsberg, but she thinks Ginsberg does not hold a candle to Emily Dickenson? This can be understood as the prism of judgement; each individual will encounter the artwork in his own way, and because judgement is such a personal thing, that means no artwork can ever produce the same identical feeling in every audience member.

Now, each person has his own judgement to work on, but that is not a concern here; what is a concern, is the exercise of judgement as a method for understanding, appreciating and creating art.

If there is no reason to engage in art, does this stop us from doing so? Of course, it does not; here I think some semantics are important. I would differentiate between use, and utility. Utility implies purpose; a utilitarian interaction between two people would be centred around a purpose, perhaps a transactional one in which I am buying from you an item, in exchange for a set price. Once we have fulfilled the purpose for our interaction, we interact no longer; the utility of the interaction ceases to exist. But a useful interaction finds its use in itself alone: consider your friendships, and what they mean to you. Do you value your friend for what they can do for you, or do you value them for who they are? If it is the former, then you will cease to value their friendship when their utility expires, but if it is the latter, then even if a temporary utility has been fulfilled through that interaction you will continue to interact with them, because you find a use in their friendship sui generis.

So, artwork can be useful: but the use follows the art, not the other way around. We often return to artistic works that we have experienced before – I enjoy re-reading some poetry more than others, for instance.

Why is this the case? Surely, I have read the poem once and received the message interred in that poem, so my enjoyment has been fulfilled and I have extracted all enjoyment from the poem that I can. This view is mistaken, because it is based on the utilitarian conception of art: that a piece has a use to convey a message, and once that message is received the artwork is no longer valuable. The medium does not matter, essentially.

But if this was the case, then I would not even bother reading poetry, I would simply ask for a synthesis of the poem and extract what message I could from that. Instead, I read poetry because I enjoy the rhythm of words, the cadence of a verse, the syntactical inversions that alter my understanding of a thought, the interactions between sounds, and so on, and in doing so I find a use for the artwork, even if the poem contains a specific message that the artist intended. If I told you that the Iliad was an epic poem with a moral on the foibles of pride and hubris, that would not be the same experience for you as reading the Iliad itself, and not simply because I have a dull voice. The Iliad is an enduring piece of work for the beauty it holds within it, for the descriptions of the shield of Achilles, or the tragedy of Hector, or the misery of Priam, and so on.

Finally, useless things matter to us because of the vacuity of their utility. To illustrate this, consider perhaps the most commonly digested form of art: music. I enjoy listening to punk music, as do several of my friends. Some of us enjoy the exact same songs, but when we talk about them we often discover that we do so for entirely different reasons: perhaps it is the pace of the song, the passion of the vocalist, the synergy between vocals and rhythm, the melodies, or the lyrics held within. But because none of those elements are held to be pre-eminent, or that a song begins with a disclaimer, ‘I want you to focus on the lead guitar in this song’, we are able to share in our enjoyment for the piece despite disagreeing over why we find it enjoyable. The absence of utility, in other words, allows for a plurality of use while maintaining artistic wholeness.

In conclusion, it is the uselessness of art that allows us to find a use for it – either as artists, or as the audience. I may, as an artist, choose a particular form of art to express a message in a particular way (it is somewhat irrelevant that those artistically talented individuals are inherently better at some art forms than others), and in doing so I am providing a utility to my piece of art – but I am not providing a permanent use to that art form universally. Similarly, as an audience member I may find a use for a work of art – but that does not preclude others’ own uses that they find in the same work of art.

Thus, the uselessness of art allows a discovery of utility.

Jake Scott is editor of the Mallard and a Master’s student of Political Theory at the University of Birmingham.

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