On the Useless Usefulness of Art

A colleague of mine recently sent me a nice pop-science article on the neuroscience of art. In reading through the article, I found many things to be of great interest. All of the research on how the brain perceives and mis-perceives is great, and helps us understand why certain artistic techniques "work" to produce a certain type of perception. I really liked the stuff on the Mona Lisa.

However, where the article seems to fall flat is when it starts to talk about WHY we view art, seek art, find art beautiful, and even crave art.

All the explanations seemed predicated on finding a certain "usefulness" or pragmatic value to art. Almost as if art were yet another expression of the evolutionary drive to thrive. In this, art is treated solely as a means to another end (the end of evolutionary success).

I'm not sure if I can go with this. At least not all the way.

Sure, most art does have side effects that are "useful". Perhaps it teaches us something, or inspires us to be more moral, or helps us understand the world in a new way.

But it seems to me that there is more to art than just USE. It seems to me that there is something completely superfluous, playful, and even "use-less" about the best art. The best art is an end in itself. An encounter with raw beauty for the sake of beauty.

Here are a few "negative" examples of what we are willing to sacrifice for the value of art:

Think about all the artists who sacrificed all their skills and talents (which could have been used on something much more "useful") for the sake of pursuing beauty. Think of all the talented artists who starved and suffered and even died for "their art". Those who labored in obscurity for a lifetime, only to be hailed as "geniuses" after their death.

Think of all the money, time, and effort that goes into the arts that could be spent on more "useful" things, like feeding the hungry, or building sturdier buildings, or reading more science texts.

Now, either this is sheer madness and the human pursuit of art is a sign that we have gone collectively crazy...

OR it is a deep insight into the fact that beauty is an end unto itself, and it worth immense sacrifice to be pursued regardless of whether it is "useful" in a evolutionary or commercial sense.

As you might be able to tell, I take the latter view.

I think that art is an end in itself, and that by participating in art we are somehow participating the beauty and joy of God's own life. When art is done well, it is mystical and transcendent. It brings us into a realm of awe and glory and reverence. Perhaps even worship.

This is not to subvert art and say something silly like "The only good art is sacred art". That is to shackle art to yet another theory of "usefulness", only this time it is "religious usefulness".

Actually, I find even deconstructive, paradoxical art to have a transcendent, numinous effect as well. I think of a Rothko painting, a Salvador Dali surrealism, even Duchamp's "fountain" (i.e. toilet). By throwing a sideways kind of spotlight on the mundane and even the depressing in life, it serves to sort of "backlight" or "inversely highlight" the transcendent in life.

For me, good art is "iconic" in the theological sense of what an icon is: An icon is a window into the "Transcendent Other", through which we either (in the words of Nietzsche) "gaze into the Abyss and the Abyss gazes into us", or in which (in the words of St. John of Damascus) "the reverence given to the Representation overflows to the Reality it Re-Presents". Thus the icon can either be a deconstructive encounter (of the Abyss of Being) or a constructive encounter (of the Glory of Being), or perhaps both.

Either way, when viewed from a strictly evolutionary or commercial point of view, art is utterly "useless". But, paradoxically, art helps us find meaning, purpose, and beauty through the "iconic encounter" with Transcendent Reality, that we could never, ever find if we lived by strictly doing "useful" things.

In the end, it is perhaps the uselessness, the playfulness, the excessive overflow of art that makes it worthwhile as a source of pure encounter with Meaning.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.