On the Apparent Uselessness of Art

If you really think about it, we live in a world absolutely obsessed by value as understood by use and practicality. We find meaning in things that have meaning, but usually only in the most painfully logical, reasonable sense. I do this and you do that because yes, it’s so rational, and things add up so nicely. Our cars get us from point a to point b, and then get us back home again, safe and secure.

But… why do we think this way? And is the truly most valuable thing that very thing that does not actually have any value? That adamantly refuses to add up?

These are the questions that I’m most interested in at the moment, and I can’t help thinking that art, or truly great art, especially in our day and age, must be absolutely, 100 percent useless. It has no value, no great purpose, or really you could say it just sits there and determinedly stares at all of those other things that insist on doing something so practical and logical for us. Other things buy us things – whereas the type of art I’m talking about is great precisely because people can’t seem to sell it. It sits unused and unwanted in the shop store window, gathering dust.

Of course, there’s nothing at all revolutionary or ground-breaking in this idea. It’s been around in various guises, this thought of uselessness versus purpose. Maybe we just need to be reminded of it? By far my favorite example of this determined uselessness comes in the 19th century in the figure of Oscar Wilde, and his flamboyant, extreme version of Aestheticism. I guess what I love so much about Wilde is the fact that he actually lived what he preached. The paper and his ideas came to life. He would deliberately shock crusty Victorian society, with its prudish ideas about morality, by living in excess, and as a true, flashy dandy. He believed that yes, art is truly beautiful for its own useless, purposeless sake. He talks most famously about this in his “Preface” to The Portrait of Dorian Gray. My favorite little passage is when he writes, “They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.” Or, simply put, don’t destroy beauty and art by assigning them grand, all-encompassing purposes. Art “means,” even though it means nothing at all, simply art – and therein lies its supreme beauty. Divorced and unfettered from stodgy, boring uses. Follow this link to check-out the entire “Preface:” http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/owilde/bl-owilde-pic-pre.htm.

duchamp-web

A Marcel Duchamp “ready-made” from the early 20th century. This also fits with Wilde. See how Duchamp “destroys” the use of the chair? But by doing this, he makes it a piece of beautifully useless art.

Now, I bring up Wilde, and I say that he is probably my favorite example of Aestheticism, and the art for art’s sake movement, largely because of the time period he worked in. The end of the 19th century was, in many ways, a lot like our own 21st century world. This was a time of extreme industrial progress, and the rise in the power and overall invasiveness of the machine in our everyday lives. People were falling in love with their machines, and anything that made their lives easier and more efficient became God-like and divine. Notice the world efficient? Efficient tools that helped us therefore had true value. They were the toys that kept us at ease. In turn, art, in this society, seemed truly useless. What a waste of time people would declare. Make more machines! That’s how we advance as a culture. What can art ever do for me? And so you have people like Wilde, and other dandy-like figures, resolutely taking a stand against machine-determined value.

Poor Wilde - he spent most of the rest of his life in jail because of
Poor Wilde – he spent most of the rest of his life in jail because of “homosexuality.”

Beauty and art, they declare, is so important precisely because it is useless; or, at least useless in the eyes of the machine-minders and devotees of reason and the bottom line. They deliberately confuse these people. Throw wrenches in the machine for sport, and declare irrationality and beauty and art as the only truly free things. They remain outside of control. They cannot be equated. They do not add up, and it is precisely because of this stand against reason that people learn to fear them… largely because they don’t understand them. They rest outside our own grand, stabilizing equation, and, by so doing, reveal that it is in fact not that grand and all-encompassing as we had been led to believe. That which stands outside shows a gap in the center, a hole that we can’t quite fill up. At best, we can only look the other way, or convince ourselves that it somehow doesn’t exist in the first place. But that only lasts for so long.

Art, then, or what I would argue as being truly great art, must be useless. It stands aside, and looks askew at a world that it fully understands, but refuses to take part in. Unlike so many other things, it protects its freedom.

Aporia II

A poem is a person that
Walks with a slight
Limp. Taps on red doors.

Whispers through grates that gush
Up to cool paving stones
Ripped from dead-men’s tombs

That once depicted a man
Walking with a limp and
Tapping… on red doors.

Looking at a Kandinsky, From Across the Room

Kandinsky seemed to know in
His later years, that all art,
The best, the brightest art,
Must be absolutely:
Incomprehensible. Must be:
Like a poem you write
About Kandinsky, in his later
Years.

This is not a poem.

More like an exercise, a
Studied set of stretches that
You take before a jog
Around a still lake where
You meet Kandinsky in
His later years.

This is not a…

Fragments from the Desk of an Esteemed Poet

Fragments from the Desk of the Esteemed Poet,
J. Humbert Riddle, Lately Deceased…
By Causes Unknown

Editor’s Preface:
The reader might be confused by this Riddle poem. So, a few notes.
I found these “Fragments” intact in one of the dark recesses of Riddle’s desk,
And, though I dug, was unable to find the other “Fragments,” assuming of course
That more to this strange piece exist. Riddle, apparently, had arranged these “Fragments”
Himself, and odder still, scratched in the title you just read. How he knew he was about
To die, and “By Causes Unknown,” might just be the central mystery
Of this poem.

Fragment 12

I am a sick man.
I am a poet whose poem
You’re reading right now you
Are and I am a sick man,
A sick poet-man I am…

Mumbling at a bolted down
Desk while bars bar the way
To sunshine and I tremor to
Tremor to hear lunatic wails
Weeping through the walls
That bar me and that bind
Me to cells bored deep
Underground?

Fragment 32

I am a sick man.
I am a sick
Man I am a
Sick poet-man I
Am.

Fragment 2

Dressed to the nines in
White washed rooms that reek
Of madness and measles
That dot the walls and
Whisper that whisper to
Me I on dry nights with
Thunder calling my name out
Loud:

I am an I am
A sick man am
I am? A
Poet-man I am.

An Appeal to Endymion

How do you start something? How do you make a beginning? There really is something ominous and scary about it. It’s a first step, a lurch into the distance. Or really you could think of it as a chase after something. Like you start out with this ideal image and vision of what you want this something to be, but then the vision leaves, and every attempt becomes an attempt to reclaim and recapture it. To re-envision what was lost. But, a vision being a vision is temporary and fragile. Once gone, it’s gone.

So that’s why it seems to be fitting to appeal to Endymion, or more specifically, the Endymion of John Keats. A poem about a man that’s haunted by an unredeemable vision. Just listen to his famous words:

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

I think the greatest thing about these lines, and what often goes the most over-looked, is that Keats really isn’t that joyful at all. These are actually very painful and sad lines – perhaps that’s why Keats breaks up his lines so dramatically. Just look at all of those pauses. Those semi-colons and commas. He makes us pause. And his lines literally can’t hold together. His pursuit and search, already in these first lines, seems doomed. Yes, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” BUT while it never passes “into nothingness,” we do. We vanish, while it stays, toying and taunting us. We look out for that quiet, nice little bower… but never find it.

So, how does this translate into such a simple thing like a blog?

I would say that it’s the perfect cop-out, the backdoor if, when it’s over, it never made it in the first place. Endymion himself in fact proves that this failure is actually inevitable, that we can’t control it, and that we must therefore just give in. Like I said, visions are never meant to be gained. That’s what makes them visions. So, like Endymion, the search is undoubtedly painful. We see the “thing of beauty,” but know, deep down, that it’s beautiful precisely because it’s already gone before we even started.

In his “Preface” to his poem, Keats himself speaks towards this inherent failure in our endless search for visions. He basically talks about how flawed his poem is. And how to not really expect all that much. He begins his poem in this way, saying, “Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public.” He then continues, “What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.” But this is the point! His youthful zest and seeming inexperience never leave. They can’t, and shouldn’t. Our flawed, doomed attempt to find our “thing of beauty” locates the beauty itself. The failure is the accomplishment.

A nice way to begin, then, right? An Appeal to Endymion.

Quotes from this post come from, The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Pages 1799-1800.