All Art is Quite Useless?

‘All art is quite useless.’ — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Preface.

In part one of Robert Anton Wilson’s fantastic book ‘Quantum Psychology’ he asks the reader to discuss the above quote. He asks for it to be discussed primarily as part of demonstrating the relativity of perception. It is an intriguing and provocative quote, for which Wilde himself gives an explanation.

He appears to mean exactly what he said. I happen to disagree and I thought it would be interesting to examine the proposition and see how it relates to the state of the art world currently. Certainly in terms of Modern Art and Fine Art his statement holds a lot of water. I don’t think this is a good thing and I will endeavour to explain why.

There are two terms we need to look at closely in order to discuss this: ‘Art’ and ‘Useless’/Useful. What do we mean by ‘Art’? And how do we determine ‘Usefulness’? I have my own subjective definition of ‘Art’, but there is also the more general consensus to consider, through which ‘Art’ can be broadly defined as either ‘Fine’ or ‘Applied’.

Applied Art consists of the application of design and aesthetics to objects of function and everyday use. Thus an applied artist incorporates design and creative ideals to objects of utility, such as furniture, jewellery, clothes, magazines etc. Industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design, decorative art and functional art are all considered applied arts, as are architecture and photography in particular contexts.

In contrast Fine Art attempts to serve as intellectual stimulation to the viewer or academic sensibilities. These art forms developed primarily for aesthetic purposes, supposedly distinguished from applied art by serving no practical function.  The fine arts commonly include visual and performance art forms, such as painting, sculpture, collage, decollage, assemblage, installation, calligraphy, music, dance, theatre, architecture, film, photography, conceptual art, and printmaking. Some institutes of learning and museums of fine art go as far as to associate the term Fine Art exclusively with visual art forms, and frequently the term Fine Art is used to refer exclusively to these.

So, Applied Art is by definition useful, whereas Fine Art is by definition not useful, in that it does not aim to serve a practical function. In this sense Wilde is right, but only about Fine Art and only if this is true of it. The problem I have with all of this is that very assumption, that Fine Art should serve no practical function, that this would somehow demean it. When I was at art school for a tutor to accuse your work of being functional or crafty was tantamount to saying it was rubbish and not really art. Yet a cursory glance through the history of art will tell you that art has always been functional, it is only in relatively recent times that such a distinction was made and that functional art has been deemed lesser to apparently ‘non-functional’ art.

Because of this we have ended up in the rather absurd situation in which the art displayed to the public in galleries and taught by art institutions as Fine Art in general aims be useless in order to be considered art at all. Any art that seeks to serve an explicit function is considered as somehow inferior, or simply not art. A piece of Fine Art by its own current definitions seeks only to ‘ask questions’, not to offer any answers, it attempts to ‘explore’, ‘challenge’ or ‘investigate’, not to offer anything concrete.  It does not aim to be creative or to generate new ideas; it does not even aim to be beautiful.

In other words Modern Fine Art is deliberately nonsensical, evasive and meaningless. This is the criteria it has set itself. This means that anything that is useless can be art, provided it is contextualised as such. So if someone calling themselves an artist does it, its art, and if it’s in a gallery its art, if Tracey Emin took a shit on a plinth and displayed it in the Tate Modern, not only would there be people willing to view this as art, someone would buy it. Yet the paintings of the Sistine Chapel are not in a gallery and serve the purpose of illustrating and beautifying religious stories and ideas. So technically speaking, according to the current prevailing definitions of art in Britain today, the paintings of the Sistine Chapel are not art; indeed the work of the great masters in general would not be considered art by today’s standards, or indeed art with any merit or anything to really say.

This seems a kind of nihilistic madness. Surely only a neurotically decadent society would revere and aim to produce useless objects? Well, yes, sadly, and sadder still is the fact that art has the power to determine and alter the aesthetics and therefore psychology of individuals and societies, having a potentially deep impact on human endeavour, as we are always and ever driven by our own taste. The aesthetic of the Renaissance reflected, inspired and catalysed the Renaissance. Today we are surrounded by well marketed bullshit, nonsense and wasteful destructive soulless corporate inoffensive blandness, and the art generally displayed as the zeitgeist of our times reflects, inspires and catalyses precisely this.

[Click Here] for some fun examples from the fantastic Hennessy Youngman.

But Janice, modern art is so offensive, what about Tracy Emin’s bed?! Well marketed bullshit. If she were really offensive, as in actually having something to say and an actual threat to social norms, we would never have heard of her. She’s just another useful idiot, a symptom of a deeply spiritually and emotionally sick society. The questions and debates generated by artist like her through the mainstream media and mainstream art establishments are not the questions or debates we need to be having. Such work is highly influential, but influential in all the wrong ways. It promotes doing anything for money, self obsession, decadence and a deliberately opaque and ambiguous style of communication; everything that is currently wrong with our society seems embedded within its aesthetic. A change in this aesthetic could promote much needed changes within society and shine a light on truly controversial topics.

This is the main way that I argue that art is most definitely useful: it can change and shape our thinking. Perhaps if we had a thriving art scene based on honesty, individuality, integrity, skill and the creation of value our society would have an aesthetic worth something.

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” -Pablo Picasso

All acts of creativity demonstrate the relativity of perception. If art is anything it is a demonstration of this, that all perception is gamble. We take our best guess and go with it. Art always has and always will serve the function of revealing this. But it is not enough to say that all is relative so all is meaningless so anything goes, as seems to be the attitude in modern thought and art. The relativity of perception and ideas shows us something far harder to handle than this, that we can choose a better world, we can choose what seems good to us and what we should do about it – that we must take responsibility, because ultimately no one and nothing else can or should.

So there seems a great need for a redefinition of art and indeed the aesthetic of our society, because the display of the useless, the wasteful, the ambiguous and the controversial in the service of greed no longer serves, as if it ever did. I propose not only that art must be redefined, but that the gallery space must be redefined.

The modern art today that is generally promoted and funded in the mainstream really has nothing to say, with its main aim being to sell itself to the highest bidder. We will find no progressive ideas or ideals or challenges to the status quo or attempts to elevate human consciousness in such works, as if the meaningfulness of an art work is now in inverse proportion to its price tag. The only reason such things are considered art at all is because they are defined as such, like the emperor’s new clothes, if an object is made by someone defined as an artist and placed in a space defined as a gallery we are expected to believe it is art, particularly if some sucker can be convinced to buy it for a large sum of money. I christen this art movement Contextualism, in which the mere context of a thing has the power to decide if it is art or not. Time for something new please, and I have an idea.

I propose a new art movement: Post-Contextualism. In this movement the perception of beautiful and inspirational works creates the gallery context. The gallery no longer contains art by virtue of being a gallery, that is no longer enough, and a piece of art must actually say something in order to be a piece of art, it must also demonstrate some actual skill, and thus create the gallery context around it. People who stack many random objects together in white rooms are not artists; they are con men with nothing to say hoping to trick funds out of people with more money than sense. They are reflections of a social sickness in desperate need of healing.

So the next time you see something beautiful and inspirational, something that fills you with awe at the creative power around you, or something that makes you feel or think deeply or profoundly, you are in a gallery and you are looking at art, a great artist then has to create objects that are more beautiful and inspirational than a summer sky or an autumn forest or the first time a child looks into its mother’s eyes. These would be works of art worth seeing and they would not need a designated space to tell us what they are.

Creativity is the single most useful trait humanity ever developed. It is all definitions and constraints that are quite useless, for we have always broken free of them and always will.

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5 comments

  1. The worse thing about this, is that in France and seemingly in the UK as well, academic art schools are vanishing, proper art education in high school is near dead. All embrace and teach the disdain for technique and skill in favor of doing the most random, meaningless crap and learning the fancy words to explain it.

  2. Wow, this is a really well-written article with some good, thought-provoking ideas. I agree with your basic premise for the most part, and I love the idea of post-contextualism. It reminds me of when artists used to have a movement and publish a journal of visual art and writing, like Der Blaue Reiter or Der Sturm (German Expressionism is my favorite “school” of art). I can envision a post-contextual journal with a manifesto and such. Ah well, I’m afraid that’s an anachronism now.

    Anyway, I’ll take issue with a few things you said. “Surely only a neurotically decadent society would revere and aim to produce useless objects?” Well, if they focused solely on that, then yes. But surely a lot of art is like Wilde said: beautiful, but useless, and still worthwhile. To produce something that is just an example of pure beauty (or terror, or even just craftsmanship) is still defensible..and might even be considered a sign of an enlightened society.

    But self-referential art…art that’s just about art…is dumb, I agree. If it’s a poorly-executed or talentless piece that sits in a museum, and only for that reason is called art, then yes, I agree. The best art stands on its own, regardless of context. And yet. Certainly knowledge of the context can increase the effect of an otherwise impressive piece. Learning about an artist, and what came before, can deepen the experience of viewing his art. Furthermore, taking an everyday object, such as a tree branch, or a pitcher, and placing it in gallery context, can allow us to see art (or at least beauty) where it had gone unnoticed before.

    I wonder how much the advent of photography changed things. Prior to that, you could argue that all art was functional. The camera maybe removed that purpose (or part of it), and art had to become “fine” to still have a purpose.

    Ah well, it’s an interesting discussion. I found this, by the way, from a link on deviantArt. I “watch” you, although I don’t remember specifically how that started. I’ve been ignoring dA for months, and just recently started looking at it again. I saw your journal posts on the PaganCon and that Amanda Parker (?) (I may comment on them later), which led me to your blog. Lots of interesting material.

    You might be interested in a journal post I did a while back after seeing a particularly frustrating art exhibit (http://outsidelogic.deviantart.com/journal/Making-Sense-of-Modern-Art-Karen-Kilimnik-357618551).

    • Thank you for this very thoughtful reply 🙂

      It all comes down to how you define usefulness. If something is intended to be found beautiful or to be an example of craftmanship then I would say it is on some level useful. It is art that is intending to be useless specifically that I take issue with, which seems to be the majority!

      Fine Art was actually established long before photography by the French Academy as a way of distinguishing certain forms of art that the rich liked to produce from craft, which was considered something poor people did. Before then painting was a craft and painters were craftsmen. Photography does have a lot of very interesting implications for art though, a whole other topic 🙂

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