The Utility of Art

It’s often difficult to have a conversation about art because we’re almost always talking past each other.

I once spent an entire night with a group of friends discussing the utility of art.

The interesting thing about that question is to pay attention to its premise.

The very idea that art should have utility is itself a symptom of a utilitarian mindset. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily right or wrong, but it’s important to acknowledge that if we want to move forward.

I have two things that come to mind when thinking about the utility of art. The first is a speech given by Karl Paulnack, of the Boston Conservatory, who talked about how music can move people and heal them in ways that they don’t anticipate or even understand. It’s not about mere entertainment, it’s about a deep psychological healing. People gathered in the streets to sing after the towers fell on 9/11. Benjamin Zander talks about the same thing.

Another thing that comes to mind is Sanjay’s Super Team.

What is the utility of friendship? Of love? Of dance? Alan Watts had a nice bit about how the point of music isn’t to get to the end of the page, and the point of dance isn’t to get to a specific point on the floor. The journey is the destination, the process is the point. There is a catharsis that happens – we make art because we are human, because it is a way of expressing ourselves, of celebrating our existence.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams said about poetry,

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

There is utility in a utilitarian perspective. Money helps us put food on the table and a roof over our heads. But what for? Why do we do those things? Why do we persist and stay alive? What is the utility of living?

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