Monday, September 30, 2013

Is "All Art Quite Useless?"

This quote, famous or infamous is from Oscar Wilde's book THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY published in 1890. It's about a ne-re-do-well who leads a life of depravity but seemingly never ages as his whose portrait does.

MONA LISA, Leonardo DaVinci
the world's most famous painting
Always a controversial character Wilde's life was full of wit, vivacity and controversy. Many have argued that his quote was trying to say that art, on its own, has no value. "Art has value because we give it value, and we give it value because of what it does to us. Art is a reflection of the artist, which is why the artist creates the art, but we like looking at it because what we see in it is something that reflects ourselves in some way. He was saying that different forms of art aren't necessarily "moral" or "immoral" ("Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming", "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral art. If you look at something and find ugliness, and art is a reflection of yourself, it means you are corrupt in some way, whereas someone who can look at something and find the beauty in it, even if it's ugly, it means that person has good in them (since art is a mirror of the spectator). 

I came upon this quote reading Jared Diamond's book THE THIRD CHIMPANZEE: The Evolution And Future Of The Human Animal. For those who didn't know chimps share over 98% of our genetic code. However, with rare instances no animal creates art like Homo sapiens. So, Wilde might well be right. 

We diverged from chimpanzes about 7 million years ago. The first unequival proof of art by modern man was created by our Cro-Magnon ancestors 40,000 years ago in the now famous caves in Lascaux France. Slowly we have become more articulate in expressing our artistic impulses. 

Wilde is right in that art doesn't help us survive (or does it make life more bearable?) or pass on our genes. However, one could argue art inspires us, like our ancestors, to do something better, like be better hunters, and ownership of art can prove our ability to provide thus insuring our genes are passed on. If you own a Monet, there is little worry about having a roof over our heads. 

Diamond and others argue that art is learned. That every culture, society on earth teaches its people the tenets of its art. It is not genetic. It's learned. Yet, recent studies have discovered that we ARE programmed to create and enjoy music.  Just like music, every single culture on earth has art. Will we discover that art is is encoded in our brains as well? Is art the means we have to explain who and what we are in this time and place? Can art, as some believe, predict our futures? It certainly has provided a glimpse of our past. 

I believe that art has relevance. That it has a story to tell. That it records who and what we are and more frequently who we were. While it's true we give it value, it also gives us great pleasure. It makes our lives bearable. It gives us hope, inspires us, makes us reverent, has the ability to make us better people. To remove art, would make us nothing more than the animals we sprang from. If that were so, then Wilde would be right, art would be quite useless.

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