Art as utility


“If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes.” Pablo Picasso*

So there it is. The problem of art in at least the U.S. if not the West generally, and the willingness of the artist to play along. Art is not rational, it is immaterial, it is not reasonable. I agree with Picasso. Not everything that is important is quantifiable. To believe we are or should be primarily logical and that emotion is, at best, secondary is to remove half our being. Art does not need to serve a use, it does not need to be utilitarian to be of value. It does not need to be “understood”.

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only a trifling bit of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world, though we can’t explain them. People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.”~Pablo Picasso

And I disagree. Picasso both decries the affect of the dichotomy of reason/emotion, yet believes it is the solution. Because reason and logic is most important, Picasso sees the issue when people don’t “get” a work of art; they don’t understand—intellectually—what the work is trying to say. But the solution he proposes is the root of the problem.

The opponents of arts support and education are more than willing to use this against us. We give them the basis for their position. In a recent discussion (certainly reflective of many other discussions and decisions both current and prior) it is espoused that since art is not the equivalent of math, chemistry, and technology, there is no utility in teaching the arts. We should only teach what creates productive citizens and viable career paths. Not everyone can become an Adele or a Clint Eastwood, so there is no value in teaching art in schools. We are told we need to be realistic about what is important. This is a false dichotomy.

Besides, art can’t be quantified, so it can’t be tested. Or so the detractor recites. This is a systemic problem as well as philosophical. We are measuring what we treasure. But we are also treasuring what we measure. This attitude creates a feedback loop that is nigh on impossible to escape. Modernism at its finest.

“It’s a risky business to send a picture out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who could extend their affliction universally!”~Mark Rothko

The purpose of education

There are a whole host of issues wrapped up in all this. Grade school education is not vocational school. Grammar school and high school is not for career training. Not everyone who studies math in school is going to become a mathematician. Not everyone who studies chemistry in school is going to become a chemist. This is about education. The most productive and engaged citizen is the most well rounded educationally, and that necessitates arts education. A person does not need only be a consumer of culture, they can be a contributor. Nothing teaches that better than art. This requires a redefinition of “productive”. Productive people are not machines, not merely economic drivers. Those are utilitarian, Benthamite ideals. There is more to being human than utility.

The whole Adele/Eastwood argument misses the point. How many people can be a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? Just like in science and tech, the superstars of the arts and entertainment fields are not the only ones making a living in the arts. To hold them up as the sole purpose of arts education misses a whole level of professional artist that contributes to society and the economy. Not only are there a slew of artists to work with and support artists like Adele and Eastwood, there is a whole industry of artists. The National Endowment for the Arts and other art advocacy groups have put together many studies showing the economic impact and the material benefits of the arts.

Teaching math, chemistry, english, and technology is important. But to say this is the only thing that is important for education (much less a quality education) is like saying because oxygen is the most important part of water, we only need to focus on oxygen and we’ll have water. Or, as someone pointed out to me recently, because hydrogen is much more rare, it is the more valuable part of water, so let’s just focus on hydrogen. The skills required for math, chemistry, drama, and music are similar and all very fundamental to education.

The irrationality of reason

I have yet to see a study, no matter how comprehensive, or a top ten list of reasons to support the arts, change anyone’s mind. Ever. I would suggest no list will change their mind, no matter the focus. Devaluing and marginalizing art, particularly in education, is an irrational position. No rational counter-position will change their minds. This is not solely an intellectual debate, it is also an emotional debate about value and mis-appropriation of what is important. As long as we accept this split of logic and emotion and that logic/and reason not only are more important, but also exists objectively and independently of emotion, faith, and art, this will always be a problem.

I’ve said before how this cultural view of art is reflected in the Church and that the Church, ironically, suffers from the same cultural position as art. It is important that the Church understands this and rectifies this view of art, especially as created by a Creator God. This is not about theology. This is the basis of theology. In the beginning God created. The very first thing we learn about God is that he is a creator. Not just “In the beginning God”, but God created. Theology begins with creativity.

What is at stake is not simply what is most important to education, but the whole person. Not only does our culture and church say art needs to serve a purpose, so do people. Until we reconcile the upper and lower story of emotion, art, faith with reason and logic, problems will only continue and likely get worse. Utility taken to our sense of humanity, the ultimate problem with our societal bifurcation. Extrapolate from there on your own. I’m sure you can see other problems this creates societally. Many examples are in the news almost everyday.



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About me

I am not a theologian, scholar, or academic. Nor am I a Grammy or Tony award winner. I am not an historian. Over my life as an artist I have mostly been the one to help other artists realize their art, particularly as a lighting designer... Continue →