Post from 1741, October 2011

“All Art is Quite Useless”

Monday, 17. October 2011 0:23

My friend who is the beginning ceramicist is in the midst of a quandary. Having broken through his block, he now is producing, but that has caused another problem. He feels that the things he makes must have a use, and since he has created objects for which no immediate purpose jumps to mind, he is concerned. While I understand this problem intellectually, his mindset is one with which I cannot fully identify.

Thus we have had long discussions about the nature of art and artifact creation, he maintaining that his ceramic output must find a function and I maintaining that art, regardless of the medium, need not have any function beyond its own existence. In looking for an argument that I thought might persuade him, I discovered this letter that Oscar Wilde wrote to an Oxford student, Bernulf Clegg, who had written Wilde asking for clarification of Wilde’s assertion in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that, “All art is quite useless.” Wilde responded:

My dear Sir

Art is useless 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. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realize the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,
Oscar Wilde.

Admittedly, Wilde’s position is an extreme one, but then that is what you would expect from Oscar Wilde. There is much evidence to contradict what he says in the first paragraph, but the second paragraph states, I think, the reality of art. It exists for itself, not necessarily for some external functional purpose.

This is not to say that art cannot have impact other than the “moment of joy” that we gain by viewing it. Art can certainly make statements about society, politics, aesthetic issues; art can put forth a particular point of view to the degree that it becomes propaganda as well as art. It can surely influence action. Art can make us think about ourselves and our lives and the lives of others, perhaps better than other means of communication can, and certainly in more complex ways than other approaches.

To say that art is “useless,” however, is not to say that it doesn’t have value beyond the immediate pleasure of viewing. (Wilde’s own work illustrates this.) It is to say that it need not have a function other than to be.  Even in those areas of design where the product of the work has inherent functionality, we have a tendency to call the work art only when it rises above that functionality. (I am thinking here of areas like architecture or set design, or even illustration).

In these days when marketing seems to be as important as creation, I think that it is easy to allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that our work must have function. However, belief in the necessary utility of our art can and will govern and limit our output, preventing us from producing our most imaginative work.

 

 

 

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

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