The Duality of Art

All art is quite useless.” – Oscar Wilde.

In a way, I agree with this statement, and I believe it to be an important element of creating and/or consuming art. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry, yet art doesn’t nourish our bodies, doesn’t heal us when we’re sick (physically.) It does nothing to better the quality of our lives in any tangible way.

But still, art is an important part of who we are as human beings. I don’t believe there is a person on this planet who doesn’t consume art in one way or another: books, music, movies, etc.

This is why art is difficult to define, because even though I do believe that, from a pragmatic point of view, all art is quite useless, at the same time, art is our biggest achievement; it’s what defines us as individuals, as creatures capable of doing more than just eating and sleeping.

Undoubtedly we’d be more than just animals even if we wouldn’t make art, but isn’t it true that we feel most human when we read a wonderful poem or listen to a brilliant song?

I often talk about the human element in art: that part we always leave behind, the part that makes great art. We leave something behind, we always do.

But why?

Because we’re alone.

There are eight billion people in the world right now, most of them living together in huge cities; and it’s been this way for as long as we have existed, but we’ve never acted like a hive of bees. Because we’re unique — and we feel this as the heavy burden of being alone; like being the first one of our kind. And last.

You know there isn’t another one exactly like you, no matter how many billion people there are, you know there will never be, and yet you want to know you’re not alone.

I honestly believe that’s what art is for, and why it’s the most important invention: we make art because we want to know we’re not alone, because only by letting people see inside our heads do we offer them the possibility of feeling like they belong to something much greater than just an individual. Like a single organism. Or an engine. A bunch of parts all working together flawlessly.

I’d like to think about art as being one of those bitter sweet promises … the same as any ideal that united people and made many sacrifice their lives, only this ideal requires that you live in order to enjoy it.

It’s not as great as going to Heaven, or fighting in a war to save your country, or saving another man’s life. It’s not as ambitious as going to the moon and back, or as egotistic as wanting to become the richest man on Earth.

All art is just an illusion, but it’s an illusion we need. Because we’re alone and we want to feel less alone, because we’re mortal, and we want to leave something behind, because we want to change the world and we’re not good enough to change it in any other way than to write a fantastic novel.

Because we want to build something that we can at least hope it will last forever, even if it’s just a lie, a fragile dream.

All art is quite useless. Without it, we wouldn’t die, but we wouldn’t feel quite alive either.

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6 thoughts on “The Duality of Art

  1. When I first started writing, it was for for expression. But as the years went on my purpose became communication, I no longer wanted to be alone with my writing. Funny how an activity that begins in solitude becomes a way to fight a solitary existence.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Come think of it, reading is the same way. One of the most solitary activities, yet the one that won’t ever make you feel lonely. You may feel lonely when with other people, but never when reading a book you enjoy.

  2. Art really is not useless. (I think you’ve misunderstood the truncate Wilde quote – or at the very least, taken in very much out of its very specific context – i.e, Oscar Wilde being Oscar Wilde).

    Nature has proven pretty efficient at getting rid of useless things, yet we’ve been making ‘art’ for longer than we’ve had written language. It’s never been stripped from our genes. That alone is argument enough that our instinct for art (creative problem solving and lateral, experimental forms of expression – maybe the essential characteristic of our species) is probably about as functional as five fingers and toes, and having bending joints in the middle of our legs. Probably even as functional as thinking and talking and moving around geographically.

    Why art requires any validation at all is mystifying to me, and it’s sad that so many people think it needs constant validation and audience to give it meaning. Especially sad to hear people who are involved in creativity having to justify it to themselves.

    (In case this comment seems mean-spirited, I write it in the opposite: I was once told at art school that ‘art is selfish’, and I can’t tell you how I wish I’d never given that throw-away comment a second’s thought. But sadly I did, I took it to heart, I pondered it, questioned it, wrote essays about it, and it ruined my life. I steered clear of art for decades, fearing living a selfish life. Instead I wasted a life that could have been lived in great happiness and fulfillment.).

    Art is neither useless nor selfish, it has no moral weight and requires no validation. It is as matter-of-fact as our language is and really ought to be afforded the same attitude.

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