In defense of uselessness

2 minute read
Photo by Katie Sayer, via Creative Commons/Flickr.
Photo by Katie Sayer, via Creative Commons/Flickr.

Attempts to justify the existence of the arts go back centuries. It’s almost as if we feel compelled to show how practicing an art makes a person fit more comfortably behind a desk, that this is the chief means by which it is measured. William Byrd wrote a list of reasons why everyone should learn to sing, many of them peripheral to the art itself. Handel said that “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.” Modern music and drama teachers might cite discipline and teamwork as reasons to teach their art, and teachers of other arts might have similarly tangential reasons to support their endeavors.

Oscar Wilde observed that all art is quite useless, and it seems to me that, if the arts are to survive in their intended habitat, their uselessness must be embraced. I’m even skeptical of any “philosophy of art,” as beautiful as many of them are. Lurking behind these thought systems seems to be the fear that art is in fact useless. And it is. So be it.

Uselessness sounds frightening, but in certain circumstances the public embraces it completely. Just look at sports. Taking part in athletics has a number of secondary benefits: teamwork, physical fitness, and even some knowledge of physics would all be involved skills. But the games themselves are useless, so why do we play them? Why do we tolerate the billions of dollars spent on sports in this country? The sheer delight, the joy for participants and spectators alike. Few people seem to question this legitimate but intangible good, unlike in the arts, where it becomes suspect, and the artists often exacerbate the problem by trying to answer the wrong question: “What is the purpose of the arts?”

Society, even in how it treats economics, has become increasingly stingy. No longer is economics the study of the totality of human choice — including the quality of life. Nowadays it’s all about dollars, cents, and GDP. We will kill art if we fall into this trap. We also dilute it when we put it strictly into subservience to some “greater cause,” whether it is nationalism or even a religion. This doesn’t mean that all art of this type is bad, but that it cannot be a mere auxiliary tool. It deserves a life of its own.

All great art is made by those who are content to be useless and in some cases even irrelevant. It is the strange and the remote that are often the most beautiful, and they also tend to be quite impractical. The unimaginative view this as a tragedy, but to me there is no higher calling than doing something gorgeous for no reason in particular, and it is time to stop apologizing for it.

Tom Purdom responds here.

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