The Value of Uselessness

Theres a certain kind of uselessness that is entwined with our feelings about art. It might be that art has to be useless in order to qualify as art. We have names for purpose-driven images and expression, after all: propaganda, advertising, or more euphemistically, or ambiguously, “design.”

As a designer myself, and also someone who tries to make art, I take no offense at this harsh division. I also see lots of areas to blur the lines.

To make something that is useless is a statement in itself. Duchamp took a urinal and turned it on its side, disconnected from the plumbing… He took a useful object and made it useless and – viola! – art happened.

When I look at a picture of Ai Weiwei’s constellations of, for instance, wooden stools, I see the same thing. A useful, mundane object has been recognized as something else, something strange, and altered so that insight can be passed on.

There is much in common between the art collector and the junk collector. Both thrill at objects that others find useless or even absurd. Both retain a kind of dumbstruck wonder in the presence of an object, its radiance or magnetism, its story, its hidden origins.

What, then, about the similarity between the art maker and the junk maker? Those of us who make art live with the fear that it’s nothing more than junk—something that is merely un-useful without transcending value.

I’ll take the contrary argument for a moment – let’s say art isn’t purposeless, is on no higher plane than advertising. It’s certainly oversimplifying to say that a wheel is design while a broken wheel is art. And if the broken wheel is meant to get your attention and promote the artist, isn’t that an advertisement in itself?

I think this is why art that seems to advertise the artist annoys us. It creeps in and unsettles our enjoyable feeling of uselessness, the feeling of an emptiness to imagine into freely. Yet even the self-promoting artist, by following a private vision (even, or maybe especially, a solipsistic one) is opening a space for a less agenda-filled moment. They may even be making themselves into a template, or a page on which to be written, or an echo chamber in which different things can reverberate.

 

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