Art is Useless (But It Makes Everything More Valuable)

Brian GriffithsArt inspiration, Musings

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

“All art is quite useless.”

Oscar Wilde, from the preface to the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray

Have you ever had this thought when you were holding a friend’s baby – “I wonder what this thing is worth?”

Do you considered the ROI (return on investment) of a walk at sunset with an old friend?

Or have you calculated the street value of an epiphany?

No, you haven’t because you’re not nuts.

These things, none of them are intrinsically “worth” anything to you. The baby coos and delights you. The sunset and the old friend warm you to your core. The sudden realization opens a path to a beautiful, more exciting future where you succeed more worthily, but by itself couldn’t even buy a week-old newspaper.

So, what is art and beauty worth then?

Celebrated 19th century writer Oscar Wilde once said:

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.

I’d like to argue that beauty is a virtue like honor, courage or truth, just as immaterial, just as “useless” but likewise of immense worth. I’d even be so brash to say that you’re a lot more motivated by beauty than you realize: that you seek beautiful experiences, you want a beautiful spouse (and to be beautiful for her or him); that you want to live in an attractive city, work in a beautiful building, drive a sleek-looking bad-ass car, vacation in exquisite, glamorous locales. Life would be monotonous trash without aesthetics and creativity.

Your life is so filled with emotion agents engineering a more beautiful world that my friend David Carus at Art Planet makes his war cry, “Artists Run This Planet”!

The Artist as Emotion Agent

I want to change your viewpoint on art. I want you to transition from seeing creativity as secondary to your life – something to engage and indulge in when the bills are paid on “serious stuff,” after you’ve finally bought that large screen TV, or a hobby you plan to pick up in retirement in 30 years’ time – to seeing it as a vital tool (and weapon) combat mindless compliance, boredom, negative emotions, and creeping doom.

If you are an artist you are an emotion agent. You produce beautiful experience and, by it, trigger attention, emotion, epiphany and change, in what can be a very ugly world. You are needed.

If you don’t consider yourself an artist yet, keep reading this blog. But I ask this of you: support the artists in your life. Encourage them, don’t make stupid jokes about being a starving artist, and if you can (and wish to) actually buy their work. Dead artists don’t need your help, but living artists – their dreams and careers – are dying from the lack of it.

If art is the highest expression of a culture, you have it in your power to change lives, to make this world a better place with a firmer base in creativity, humanity and spiritual values, as opposed to crass materialism, cheap entertainment and inside-the-box thinking. Even if all your poem, painting, photograph or song ever does is cause one human to smile, you’ve created a positive, powerful good.

Art maybe “useless”, but it imparts worth to every aspect of human society, and to your own life and those of the people you love. Treat it with the value it has.