All art is quite useless

Thursday, June 28, 2018
In the preface to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, he makes a claim that all art is quite useless, and explains later that its aim is simply to create a mood. Truthfully, I'm not convinced he believed it. I know I don't. Art may not bring money or security, but the sheer act of enjoying a good book, strolling through a museum or getting caught up in a play is worth much more than the price of admission. And I don't know about you, but when I'm writing I get blissfully lost in my own universe.

Art, along with any creative process, is beneficial to our mental and physical well-being. Writing is believed to help manage pain, music therapy gives the immune system a boost, and dancing goes beyond the immediate physical improvements, reducing fatigue and aiding psychological health.

The advantages continue beyond our own bodies, as artists and writers have similar tasks and goals--to promote self-expression, and reflect on culture and society. Art can be the catalyst for a difficult discussion. Art can bring people together, cultivate passion and conflict, or offer a healing respite for a damaged soul. Art deserves a special place in our community, and I'm glad galleries, libraries, and concert halls exist to help people navigate a complex world.

One of my favorite memories comes from a visit to a contemporary gallery in Houston. Many years ago, my mother accompanied me on a business trip that included a city tour with a stop at the gallery. The canvases were huge sheets of brown craft paper that hung from the wall and flowed onto the floor. Each one featured spirals (think snail shells) of dates written numerically.

My mother and I spent a lot of time trying to decipher the codes and significance behind the numbers. We looked for patterns and made guesses about what they meant. It was the first time I remember seeing my mother beyond the role she played in my life, as a person who had her own ideas about the world and what it meant to be part of it. We had different interpretations of the same image, which also stayed with me, and now, as I teach the concept of perception in my communications classes, I share that memory as an example of the fact that no two people experience reality exactly the same way.

While some may think art is useless, I believe art shows us who we are. And it's up to us to share our worlds, and write about it in a way that connects us. To me, all art isn't useless, it's essential.

Mary Horner is the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Unknown said...

Oscar Wilde is my all time favorite author and very well known for saying the opposite of what he believes just to be his zany self! If you look up Oscar Wilde quotes you'll find all sorts of wonderfully nonsensical things! Not to say there aren't those who believe that art is useless - there certainly are. I agree with your point that the arts are extremely valuable for numerous reasons, in fact that's what my whole blog is about! Thank you for sharing this.

Mary Horner said...

Thank you, Vanessa! We may never know what he really meant because your assessment of him is right on track. It did give me something to think about, and it's always a fun exercise to examine the words of great writers!

Renee Roberson said...

Very though-provoking post, Mary! As a writer who also works in publicity and marketing for a nonprofit theatre company, I'm so fortunate to be involved in the creative and performing arts each and every day. I see the joy in the faces of patrons as they laugh and cry during productions. There is nothing like getting lost in a story or a few hours of theatre or a movie. I don't know what I would do without the arts!

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