Is Art Useless?

Sing, O Muse, the anger of this writer, son of Philosophy and Stonewall ─ the anger that brought countless arguments upon those who look down on art. Many an empty soul did it send hurrying into theatres and galleries, and many a prejudice did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so was the counsel of his gut fulfilled from the day on which journalists and Carlos Rodríguez’s decision first fell out with one another.

He, Carlos Rodríguez, got the highest possible marks both in his high-school tests and his university entrance examinations. A wonderful achievement. But news and their headlines were primarily focused on what he wanted and what he didn’t want to be: “a playwright, not a scientist.”

In my previous post on this blog (“Intelligent, but artist,” January 15), I argued that the message subtly conveyed by news and headlines on this case was the following: “This guy is intelligent, BUT he wants to study art.”

O, for Da Vinci’s sake! The taken-for-granted expectation that readers would grasp such a contraposition without further explanation could only mean that two ideas are widely assumed as true:

  1. Artistic activities and accomplishments fall outside the realm of intelligence
  2. The value of art for humanity (if it has any) is much lower that the value of science

Having epically fought to death prejudiceain my previous post, I will now put my strength to the test of confronting prejudice b. May the Force be with me.

In situations such as that of Carlos Rodríguez, many will see his decision to make musicals as the loss of a great intelligence for astrophysics or medical research and, therefore, for human progress or wellbeing. Art is thought to be superfluous when compared to the utility of science. And, to some extent, even I could be inclined to automatically and uncritically adhere to the claim that making musicals is less important than doing scientific research if asked out of the blue. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to ask the question about the possibility that this inclination has its roots in a misled obsession of my society with utility. And this is partly due to the impression that my life would be comparatively impoverished without angry inches and fiddlers on roofs.

Lazarillo de Tormes

Moaners for intelligences wasted on art tend to come in two shapes. In one, they believe art has certain utility, but a utility of lesser importance if compared with that of science. The other possibility, the extreme one, directly sees art as useless. Both shapes are likely to be modelled after prejudice a. And both clearly fit in one form of prejudice b.

Well then, my opinion is that behind blie (1) the equation of value with utility, (2) the equation of utility with medical and technoscientific utilityand (3) the consideration of art, in its uselessness, as mere entertainment.

To put it another way, behind prejudice blies the preponderance of physical health, physical comfort and survival as a value. But human live is much more than these things.

I admit, of course, that without survival there’s no human life. And yet,we should ask ourselves if only survival and physical health qualify a life as human. I don’t think so.

Moreover, art is not, it can never be, mere entertainment. Even in a simple melody there is something being communicated (I cannot extend more on this here, but there will be opportunities in the future). In a more obvious example, ideologies, role models and worldviews are transmitted all the time in the kind of work those who equate art with entertainment have relation with: TV series, movies, theatre, literature, songs. This transmission is sometimes unnoticed by the creators themselves, mainly when they reproduce naturalised, mainstream social norms. Also, when they use pre-established templates that have already guided countless works.


Next, dear reader, you will find a non-comprehensive list with different kinds of usefulness of the arts, and in which the narrow conception of utility described above will be questioned:


-Let us start with what’s most basic, which is the importance of pleasurefor our emotional wellbeing. I know therapists that recommend doing at least five things a day that bring you pleasure, among which art is included both from the side of the creator and from the side of the audience. For too long our emotional dimension has been disregarded in favour of the fulfilment of our social and family-related duties, while pleasure has been looked at with suspicion or directly as an impure and decoying obstacle in the quest for the purity of our human essence, be it pure knowledge or pure immaterial souls (rationalistic philosophies, religions). Not to speak of the sanctity ascribed to suffering in Catholicism…

-With humour and music as the best examples, art iscapable of changing the tone of our experience, of modulating our mood and helping us out of states of negativity.

-Contrary to what many think, art is not necessarily a realm of lies and falsity as opposed to the truth and reality of science and nature. Art speaks truths much more times than scientism would ever admit. It is through movies, novels, pictures, songs and comics that I have been acquainted with human experiences and realities previously unknown to me. Or, if I already knew of their existence, it is through artworks that I have gained a deeper knowledge of these situations, including their emotional aspects, so indeterminate for science. Examples: The life of Lazarillo de Tormes, Goya’s The Inquisition Tribunal, Abramović’s Rhythm 0,Sophocles’sAntigone, the entire Toulouse-Lautrec, Kerouac’s On the Road,PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Rent.

-Speaking these truths means putting some humans in contact with alien experiences. This way, art can act as a stimulator of, and vessel for, empathy.

-With empathy and the depiction of unjust realities, come art’s capacity for ethical and political awareness-raising. Think of Tim Robbins’Dead Man Walking, Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Shakespeare’s Shylock, McCullin’s photography or De Palma’s Redacted.

Some criticise this view by pointing at the great possibilities present in art for manipulation and expansion of lies. I won’t, and I don’t want to, deny such possibilities, but I would like to make clear that they are not a prerogative of art. In the performances of politicians, the media, and those around us, the use of different modes of expression to diminish the autonomy of our thought instead of enlarging it is widespread. Banning art from the realm of truth, therefore, wouldn’t solve the problem. What we need is more and better education, one that provides us with the tools necessary for self-awareness, critical thinking and for detecting when we are being the objects of indoctrination. And sometimes it is artworks themselves and the comparison between them and between them and other cultural instances that can help fuel these abilities.

Simon_Vouet_-_Parnassus_or_A ... uses_(detail)

-In art, many worldviews or claims or experiences that haven’t previously been presented in a clear formulation, or in one that could reach wide audiences,happen to crystallise. I am thinking of Dadaism or bands such as Slipknot, born as counter-culture and giving form and expression to the feelings of a generation. I am also thinking of Munch’s iconic representation of existential horror in The Scream.

In addition, discourses or experiences already known find sometimes in art powerful symbols immediately recognisable by the vast majority. This is the case of the image of handmaids from The Handmaid’s Tale, used in feminist interventions both in social networks and demonstrations. This can happen to the extent that artistic elements become icons or points of referencesaturated with meaningfor many generations or even centuries. It is very interesting to see how Mozart’s Requiemis used in movies for moments of transcendental change, frequently enormous plot twists after which nothing will be the same.

Not in vain, Hans-Georg Gadamer insisted that the classics are works with which new ages tend to be in dialogue.

-Art, most of all when innovative and shocking (or at least new to us), can prompt thought, critical reflection and self-awareness. I have grown intellectually and as a person with Ingmar Bergman, Anohni, Lost(despite its final season) and Mark Rothko. All of them have affected my life meaningfully, opening fresh paths for thought, stirring emotions and enforcing my awareness of them. They have given me tools to think, to process, to understand, and, as a consequence, to be who I am now.

-Furthermore, many innovative artworks, but not only them, have been made in part to transmit a thesis and the arguments leading to it, to transmit a message or a particular perspective on the world. From The Ugly Ducklingto Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, from A Rake’s Progress (paintings and opera) to Edward Hopper, from Macbethto Game of Thrones, from Hesiod’s Works and Days to Italian neorealism, from the Book of Jobto Shyamalan’s The Village.

-With Ludwig Wittgenstein, I believe that we human beings are “ceremonial animals.”Homo Sapiens present conducts that don’t seem to have a significant influence in the states of affairs, this is, that don’t seem useful in the widely accepted sense. For example, I can kiss the photo of a beloved one who’s far away, or someone can hit the ground with her cane out of anger. Moreover, the performance of this acts isn’t done with a purpose in mind. They are, in a sense, instinctive. However, we may feel partly relieved of our longing or anger by the acts themselves. It seems, so, that we humans act symbolically many times, and that such kind of acting accomplishes a purpose of relief.

Simon Vouet - The Muses Urania and Calliope

The way I see it, still following a Wittgensteinian line of thought, art can be understood as a refined and more complex version (or an evolution) of some of our symbolic conducts. We find relieve in expressing our emotions.

Art can be cathartic, as Aristotle put it, helping creator and audience to release onerous emotions. In the case of the former, catharsis happens, clearly, through expression. On the part of the audience, catharsis happens through identification, an identification that places them in a position similar to that of the self-expressing creator.

-Art is the centre or an integral part of public rituals and celebrations such as parades, masses, carnival or ecstatic dancing in the club.As such, it contributes to the functions of each specific performance. It can foster bond strengthening in the community, it can be used to metaphorically subvert social hierarchies (which may involve great doses of catharsis), it can create the right atmosphere to revel in the liberation of one’s movements and the interaction (sometimes through touch) with other human bodies, it can reinforce the status quo, etc.

Yes, these functions may not be ethically acceptable, but, if we think of science, it is clear that many of its utilities have served outrageous purposes (Hi, bombs!) or created great dangers (Hi, climate change!). Again, a holistic education is fundamental to ensure the right use not only of art. And art and science themselves must participate in that education.

-Finally, I’d like to mention one of the features that should play a fundamental role in the demarcation of art from other practices: Art is a privileged field for the opening of our world. In art, the range of that which can be thinkable, understandable, perceptible, imaginable, questionable and felt is open to change and expansion. Art pushes the limits of our world, offering new ways or dimensions of experience. Think, for example, of surrealism.

Is Art Useless? Article for Miista by Efren Poveda Garcia

Being honest, I’ll confess that this aspect can and should be explained in much more detail. It deserves an article for itself, for Madonna’s sake! And why not, huh? Furthermore, if you follow this blog, I’m sure you’ll know how much I like trilogies and tetralogies. I’m ending this chapter here, with a wonderful cliffhanger. But please do read the epilogue unless you want to make me sad:

Would all this mean that, in a situation of extreme crisis with, for example, only five humans left and constant danger, I would choose to educate the children intensively in art instead of science? Of course not! And yet, I know for sure that art would find its way among those few ceremonial beings.

Image Credits:
Lazarillo de Tormes
Edgar Degas - In a Café - Google Art Project
Simon_Vouet - Parnassus
Simon Vouet - The Muses Urania and Calliope