Why great art is useless

Saturday 12 September 2020 12:22

There is a popular polychrome sculpture of Oscar Wilde lounging on a rock at one corner of the grand eighteenth-century Merrion Square in Dublin. To the west side, across the wide street, is the splendid art collection that fills the National Gallery of Ireland. The space between statue and gallery might be thought to vibrate with Wilde’s comment that ‘all art is quite useless’. Wilde was born a few paces away in Westland Row, and just across the same corner to the north side of Merrion Square stands his parents’ family home, now the American College Dublin. Wilde was a celebrated aesthete, so what might he have meant by saying that all art is quite useless?

Of course, to say that art is useless is not to say that it is valueless, but that its value as a work of art is not associated with its utility—it may have no practical use whatever. It exists only to be seen, to evoke associations with great ideas and experiences. To the north of Dublin lies one of the great Neolithic monuments of Europe, the burial mounds and megaliths of Newgrange (which appears in my painting Silver Trout). For today’s visitor, the complex is, of course, quite useless, including its mysterious carvingsWe are drawn to it for the fact that it presents to us a world, and a worldview, long past. Michael Pearce, in his book Art in the Age of Emergence, notes that Wilde wouldn't have found any use in his plays or witty aphorisms for say, the somewhat later Stonehenge, in England. It might provide us a place for meditation, or a religious setting for druids. ‘But,’ Pearce adds with an observation that would no doubt have pleased Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, 'we can’t make an omelet with it, or fly to Australia on it, or fire a missile with it — its only purpose is to mark ideas that were important to the way Neolithic people understood the world… ideas are incredibly useful, dangerous, culture-shaping things… the purpose of a work of art is to share consciousness, to share mind.’ Who cannot admire James Gandon’s splendid Custom House in Dublin, noting that the pleasure it gives is quite unrelated to its intended function—the Palladian harmony, the spacing of the windows, the statues above its Doric columns? And then turn around to see one or two of the new high-rise office buildings across the river in which function—utility—has triumphed over form in the eradication of all decorative elements. Roger Scruton might have described one of the most recent as ‘a crime against beauty’, and not just because it is new.

Perhaps this is why the tourists who photograph Danny Osborne’s sculpture of Wilde on the corner of Merrion Square still cross the wide road to the National Gallery. Representational art manifests the accumulated treasury of human culture, of narrative, history, human emotion, love and hatred, grand ideas about ultimate reality, God, meaning, the temporal and atemporal, what endures beyond mere fashion, and, of course, even in the depiction of human suffering, glimses of beauty. If we discount these things—as some have done in the name of art—then yes, art is quite useless.     

[Wilde sculpture by Danny Osborne; photo of Wilde sculpture Wiki Commons: User Rodhullandemu]