Sunday, October 03, 2004

Afterlife: on the uselessness of art

In my last post, I made the self-defeating admission that I accept that art is a by-product of sexual display. In doing this, I seem to be aligning myself with the trend toward scientific explanations for the otherwise inexplicable experience of art. This admission would in turn confirm that my own fascination with this experience is merely a distraction from more important activities, such as dealing with the realities of life. The analytical disciplines tell us that, yes, art can help us understand the world, and perhaps solve certain issues, but only indirectly. It has no value in itself. Daily, this fact confronts me. Yet I persist.

I am reminded of a scene in Saul Bellow's 1970 novel Mr Sammler’s Planet in which the elderly Artur Sammler speaks to a group of students. As he discourses about his friend George Orwell, Sammler is interrupted by one of the young men in the audience:
"Old Man! Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit." Turning to the audience, extending violet arms and raising his palms like a Greek dancer, he said, "Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come." (page 36)
So Sammler, so all those exiled in the indigent province of art. The situation is also expressed in Bill Callahan's desperately slow and tender song To be of use to which I've been drawn to lately. It begins:
Most of my fantasies are of / Making someone else come
Most of my fantasies are of / To be of use
To be of some hard / Simple / Undeniable use
It takes 110 seconds to sing this much. A straightforward interpretation of this song would say it expresses the writer's wishes for his life outside art. Ironically, by coming into existence in this way, the song provides anyone in need of an outlet to express the same to make use of it (if not also come). This is a performative contradiction. The fantasy of usefulness in its utmost expression becomes reality. Yet matters are confused because such use remains dependent upon the performance. It cannot be used anywhere or anyhow else. In effect, there is no use. The song has to be heard again and again.

This would mean that our fascination with a song, or with a particular image, or with a poem or with a story, is a fascination with making use of its uselessness. Why else do we try to mitigate this fascination with the utility of expression, with entertainment, with escapism, with socio-political relevance, with analysing its place in the tradition of art? All are relevant, interesting and significant, but science is not doing anything very much different. Not one of these forms of mitigation tells me what I want to know about art. While science convinces me that art emerged from the evolution of the human brain, and as such can inform me about the persistance of sexual display in all human activity, it doesn't tell me anything about art in itself. It cannot. There is an acultural aspect to art that science - for all its studied impersonality (perhaps because of it) - is oblivious.

Hence Denis Dutton's otherwise commonsense observation that works of art "are manifestations of both individual and collective values" and provides an "intelligible history of the expression of values, beliefs, and ideas". Dan Green rejects the happy philistinism from which this stems yet, while rightly defending the autonomy of art, offers only silence as an alternative (due, no doubt, to constraints of time and space). Perhaps silence is all one can offer as an alternative. Instead we must turn to what is intelligible: the values, beliefs and ideas revealed by art. Indeed, what else is there but ghosts?

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