On Artistic Usefulness

A happy life must be one in which there is activity. If it is also to be a useful life, the activity ought to be as far as possible creative . . . But creative activity requires imagination and originality, which are apt to be subversive of the status quo.

—Bertrand Russell

In scientific literature, creativity is commonly defined as the production of novel and useful products. Novelty—originality—is straightforward: a product is novel if it is substantially different from anything that had been produced before. Usefulness is a bit more ambiguous. Useful how? Useful to whom? In the realm of artistic creativity, usefulness becomes yet more problematic. What does it mean for art to be useful? Why should art be required to serve a useful purpose?

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted to the Society of Independent Artists a urinal he signed, “R. Mutt,” and titled Fountain. No doubt, Fountain, at least as a work of art, was an original. But was it useful? Duchamp explained that the urinal was “raised to the dignity of a work of art, by the artist’s act of choice.” Is an artist’s choice sufficient to make something useful?

Fountain is considered by many a major work of 20th century avant-garde art. Sixteen replicas of it were commissioned. Does this make it useful?

Fountain has prompted many to consider what makes something art, whether anything can be art, whether art necessarily needs to be beautiful or elevating, and whether art—even if accepted as such—is necessarily something to admire or aspire to. Does prompting such questions and the discussions they arouse make a work of art useful?

Perhaps before anything else, we can say that artists make art (however they choose to define it) because they find value in the act of creation—in the states of mind arising from creative activities. As such, all art can be considered useful, if only to the artist, even if nobody else finds value in the resulting artwork.

In 1940, mathematician G. H. Hardy published his seminal essay, A Mathematician’s Apology. In the essay, Hardy conceded, “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own.”

In his review of A Mathematician’s Apology, Graham Greene declared it (along with Henry James’s notebooks) to be “the best account of what it was like to be a creative artist.” Hardy himself wrote, “It will be obvious by now that I am interested in mathematics only as a creative art.” This may perhaps seem odd to those who are not mathematicians or who may not be familiar with what professional mathematicians do. (For those who wish to gain more insight into the beauty and creativity involved in what Hardy called “real mathematics,” I recommend reading the essay, which is relatively short, brilliantly written, and requires no deep knowledge of mathematics.)

The reason I bring up Hardy is not to persuade anyone of the value or beauty of mathematics, but because there is an interesting twist to his story. Hardy lived and died believing his work was, by his own characterization, useless in any practical sense. In his own words: “I wrote a great deal . . . but very little of any importance; there are not more than four or five papers which I can still remember with some satisfaction.” The twist is this: Hardy’s work in number theory and other areas, without him knowing or intending it, has later become instrumental to progress in such fields as genetics. The kind of mathematics he characterized as useless has yielded such uses as public-key cryptography, without which none of today’s electronic commerce would be possible, and many other examples. As it turned out, Hardy’s work has been enormously more useful than he ever expected it to be.

An important lesson from Hardy’s work is this: while creative products may be defined as “novel and useful,” the two don’t have to occur at the same time, nor be considered as equally important goals by a person who pursues creative work. In many cases, the usefulness of a creative idea—in art or in science—may not become known or realized until long after the novelty of its conception, sometimes even long after the creative person’s death.

“A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities,” wrote Hardy, “has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be.” Answering his first question, Hardy conceded, “I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well.”

If you can do something well, something original that had not been done before, for the sheer love of it, for the experience of it—do it without regard to how useful it may or may not be by anyone else’s measure. Do it without expectation of recognition or popularity, without concern for who else may like or understand it. If it is useful to you, if for no other reason than it gives your life meaning, that is all the justification and all the usefulness you should care about. Whether this work may later become more useful, or useful in some unexpected way, to you or to others, should make little or no difference to you. Novelty, not usefulness, should be your primary concern in art. Usefulness in art is built-in, baked into the very act and experience of creation.

So much is made of the practicalities of being an artist—craft, income, competition, community, popularity, legacy—that many miss, by choice or by misdirection, what seems to me the most important reason for engaging in art: the creative artist’s inner experience arising from the act of creation—the satisfaction, the inspiration, the self-knowledge, the intellectual freedom that make up a creative life: a life lived in pursuit of discovery and learning, of ever richer, deeper, and more ennobling creative experiences.

Etch A Sketch

(This image, “Etch A Sketch,” is available to order as a print from the Recent Additions page on my website.)

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3 thoughts on “On Artistic Usefulness

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  1. Thank you for this article Guy. Having been a professional engineer for over 30 years, the focus was always finding a practical solution to a real problem in an affordable and timely manner. With my photography I have always felt a little uncomfortable about the fact that I was doing none of that while out with my camera. I will (try to) relax while out rambling and doing “nothing”.

  2. Hi Guy,

    For me, photography is an autotelic task, one that has an end and a purpose in and of itself. Its utility is as a means to get in the flow. It helps me to understand the world better, to see things anew, to reset my mind to a more peaceful place, and to intellectually and creatively stimulate me. That’s plenty useful enough!

    D

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