The Usefulness of Art, Redux

I have been working on a piece about Pussy Riot for a journal with an upcoming, advertised theme of “protest.”  It has brought up a number of old issues for me, including the “usefulness” of art and, by extension, art as protest.

Dana Stevens, writer for Slate magazine, tells us that, “’Poetry makes nothing happen,’  wrote W.H. Auden in a poem on the occasion of W.B.. Yeat’s death in 1939.[. . .] Auden mourned “the incapacity of even the most politically engaged art to stave off the awful fate looming over Europe at the time. But the rest of the stanza makes clear just how important this ‘nothing’ that poetry enables is to the survival of human culture: ‘It survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper;…/….it survives/A way of happening, a mouth.’”

It is perhaps synchronous that, recently, several friends/readers have sent me articles or political cartoons or other material related to this matter.  This “apologia” for music is from a forwarded Facebook post from the Seattle opera.

And Pat, from Loveland, CO, sends me yesterday’s Mallard Fillmore cartoon about “protest” art.

So what is the purpose of poetry? of art? of music? of Pussy Riot?

More interesting, why am I even asking the question?

More thanks to Carolyn of Green Bay, WI, who sent me the link to Kate Taylor’s article Creation theory: Scientists are unlocking the biological secrets of creativity  in The Globe and Mail. According to Daniel Levitin, McGill University professor and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, “Those who do not come from artistic families often feel they have to justify what they do, especially if it doesn’t make much money, which is often the only measure of success. Here is a justification for their passion.”

He goes on to say, “Still, the notion that music, painting and literature are fulfilling ancient functions that make us human – and that science can prove it – could be very attractive to those who have spent a lifetime arguing that the arts should get more respect, and often rely on job-creation arguments.

“’The neurological argument has something to do with what it takes the species to survive in changing conditions,’ said Robert Sirman, the recently retired director of the Canada Council for the Arts. ‘I don’t want to fall back on a single argument for the arts … but I think attaching them to humanity rather than to part of the economic system is the future.’

“He cautions, however, against the dangers of just swapping social utility for economic utility. The English philosopher Alain de Botton has been criticized for presenting art as a kind of social work, an idea articulated in his current show Art as Therapy at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, where paintings are analyzed for their ability to make us feel less lonely, escape our money worries or give us a break from our cynicism. Here, the idea that visual art should be immediately and obviously improving seems reductionist in the extreme.”

Full confession here: my volunteering to play for hospice patients may be motivated, in part, by such reductionist thinking and by such a need to justify my spending thousands of hours on something that, as Dana Stevens says in a recent “Bookends” discussion around the theme, “Should literature be considered useful?”: “Literature may not be in a strict sense useful—may even, by its nature, mock ‘usefulness’ as a category, allying itself first with pleasure, idleness and play—but its necessity seems self-evident from the mere fact of its continued existence, so inextricably bound up with our species’ own.”

Her co-panelist, Adam Kirsch, poet and literary critic, remarks, “The life that literature really equips us to live is not the one Wordsworth derided as devoted to ‘getting and spending,’ but the second life of inwardness and imagination. For those who not believe in the reality of that second life, no amount of insisting on the usefulness of literature will justify it; for those who live it, no such insisting is necessary.” 

John Darnielle, recently longlisted for the National Book Awards for his novel Wolf in White Van, offered this comforting (to me) thought in a recent interview with Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times: “…creative work is labor, like any other kind of labor. It’s got value and it takes your time and it’s useful to people, depending. The difference is if I make a wrench, anybody who picks it up can use that wrench. With creative work, not everybody’s creative work is going to be useful to everybody—it will only be useful to the people who connect with it.”

But John is also a musician, and gets paid for it. He goes on to say, “being a musician is what I do for a living.”

But what of amateurs? I raised this question in two previous blog posts, “To Be of Use” (September 3) and “Starlings, Bowerbirds and the Purpose of Art” (August 25).  I’m not sure I feel any more resolution of the issue that I did then.  But it is somewhat helpful to know that others are dealing with the same questions.  But not all arrive at the same answers. Here are my current ones:

Did I grow up in a family where art was venerated? No.

Do I make any money from my art? No.

Have I therefore had to find time for poetry and music inbetween other responsibilities? Yes.

Is art an indulgence, a pass-time? Yes, but see below.

Are poetry and music essential  for me to live a meaningful life? Yes.

Do the poetry and music I make need to be shared, considered by others (how many?), to be considered “useful”?  Depends.  Possibly. Sometimes. Why else do I seek to publish, write this blog, plan a recital?

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Aleyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich depend on Vladimir Putin as well as on Twitter for a response to their art.  On whom do we depend, here in the United States?









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