Is Art Useful? / by Liam Jones


Here is my first stab at putting something in writing about art and what I think about it, big picture. Take it with a grain of salt, and I hope you enjoy.

Consider this: the answer is actually important but not in a way you’d expect. First let me clarify: It’s like asking “what are anchovies?” and being told anchovies are carbon based life forms (like something Data on Star Trek might say). It’s not useful or helpful, considering that what you really wanted to know was if they’re good on pizza. So let’s get specific.

I have an idea about the usefulness of painting in particular I’ve been putting together since childhood. I’m only 43 as I write this, and I keep working at it, reading the likes of Kant, Nietzsche and other philosophers. But more importantly, I’m thinking on my own as I take in the crazy amount of information the modern world pumps out of Flipboard and Netflix documentaries. The question has haunted me for more than 25 years. The question is not “Is art useful?” but “Why is art so damned meaningful?” or more importantly “Why shouldn’t art’s significance be dismissed?” What is it about painting and its importance I can’t shake off? Here’s my stab at it:

Idea is Key

There's the idea and then there's craft and good art needs both. The idea is key however, and so I’m going to talk about the idea here. Painting imbued with meaning that is developed over an artists’ career of dedication to thought and that matters more than anything else.

I believe art is useful in conversation with the big questions of our time like why are we here? What does it mean to be human and alive? Why do we dream? What is consciousness? If time and space are relative, how does that change everything? Why can't we accept a meaningless existence? And of course, is there a god? (I’m Christian, but I won’t be waxing religious here.) Usefulness here is referring to meaning, specifically what art contributes to the betterment of mankind.

Art and Flourishing

Big heady stuff, sure, but as a privileged white guy I have the option to explore such things, as I give back from my privileged comfy chair at my computer. Maybe art even validates the benefits of privilege, yes? On the buzzword of “privilege” I’d say that art is a big part of human flourishing. It’s what starts to happen when all your basic needs are met. Once you are healthy and upwardly mobile, the big questions start to creep into your brain, like a cat hunting your untied shoelace. We’re established, and all of a sudden we have this weird thing we do: we start creating, maybe some of us start drawing, seeing beauty and meaning everywhere we go.

Art and Nihilism

It's an exciting time to be alive, with new discoveries happening every day that keep re-framing what it all means. The universe gets bigger, particles get smaller, time gets weirder, relationships get more complicated, and I keep seeing great thinkers talk about art as they address this ever-changing world. That’s actually something very encouraging for the artist. Why do we keep talking about art exactly? 
Art speaks to the problem of meaning in this post-modern, nihilistic worldview that everyone and no one seems to believe. Maybe you’ve heard it, (he says, sarcastically:)

"There’s no real meaning because we're just hairless apes made of stardust floating around on a pale blue dot" or something to that effect.

We all on some level have to deal with that, even while most of us have a deep rejection of nihilism, which I argue, is a natural part of the human condition. I think art speaks directly to that: Art’s value flies in the face of nihilistic reasoning. One could argue that society is just making it up, but good luck with that, buck-o. Look at The Monuments Men. I mean, thank god for those guys, right? They risked their lives to save stolen art. Just touching on the issue of art’s monetary value here… I’ll say the pricing of art is a weird freak show sometimes, but not all the time. Suffice to say that the enormous dollar value that can be placed on art is evidence that there is almost unarguably something objectively valuable and meaningful about art.

Objective Meaning May Be Hard to Pin Down, But

Art is important and has meaning. But why? Here’s something to chew on: To say that art is meaningless is part and parcel with the argument that meaning on this pale blue dot is not objectively true either and we all know, if we’re mentally healthy and not shooting up schools in our spare time, that there is meaning to our lives. And so it is with art.

Let’s put it another way: What if someone paints a great painting but no one ever sees it? Is it still meaningful and important? That’s like saying if a child dies without becoming an adult, was that life valuable? It’s hard to say no to those questions, isn’t it? It takes serious mental gymnastics. I’d go as far as to say it’s pathological lying to deny the meaning of human life, and so it is with art, too.

Here’s a general example: If an artist has a revelation about one of the big questions of our time, knowingly or unknowingly… because artists divine weird stuff, often paint dreams and things they don’t understand because they’re just in touch with that more chaotic, unspoken aspect of life. There’s a lot to be said for intuition. So the artist paints their revelation and some physicist sees it and then draws from that some inspired revelation of their own to move understanding forward, that’s a win for art, and a win for humanity. Here’s a more specific example: When Steven Hawking or Michio Kaku talk about string theory, they mention how it’s like music, which instantly makes something crazy like string theory at least seem comprehensible, moving the field forward. There are two documentaries out there I’ve seen on Hawking and Kaku dealing with string theory and they both use a string quartet to make this point, with beautiful artistic visual representations of the music (à la Kandinsky) to describe how vibrations actually create sub atomic particles. Art is a part of the discussion.

The Issue of Consciousness

When Jordan Peterson talks about the human condition (his “Psychological Significance Of The Bible” series), he often talks about archetypes and the paintings that depict them, such as in the unbelievably genius-twisted Hieronymus Bosch paintings
The issue of consciousness and all things psychological are a special place for art. Again, good art. But who knows, maybe even “bad” art.

Picasso envied children’s drawings, and for good reason. Take a good long look at kids drawings, especially the more chaotic ones that come before the house with the sun above and the family standing in a row. Those early depictions are often wild, incredibly powerful and insightful, says this dad. (but seriously, take a good look at them) I’m saying there’s something intensely psychological about kids drawings, and by extension, art in general.

The Onus is On Us

Good art speaks clearly and profoundly to many issues. It’s peoples’ mining for art’s usefulness that is more the issue than art’s a priori usefulness. We all need more art. Thank god for art galleries and the internet. Just, for instance, take the time to look through an artists’ work and read a few paragraphs about them. Go down an internet art rabbit hole, I dare you. Check out my all time favourite, Van Gogh, someone like Bosch, or Rembrandt, another classical painter like Caravaggio, or later, Georgia O’Keefe, or someone like Joan Brown or Chris Gwaltney (man that dude can paint). Put an abstract painting by one of the New York Abstract Expressionist painters on your home screen for a few days instead of those boring-ass beaches and pom-trees. Watch what happens. There’s a reason the great minds of our time tend to be art fans.