Art and utility

Over the past year (much longer, actually), we’ve seen the idea of creativity being the key to business success in the world and the world as it is evolving. We’ve seen new phrases pop up like “the creative economy” or “tell your story.”

When we talk about creativity, we inevitably talk about art. Not all expressions of creativity are considered under that umbrella term “art,” though I can’t think of any creative expression that in essence was not art of some kind.

Something happens to art, however, when it is pulled into the realm of business and marketing and economics. A way of seeing takes hold. It’s a way of seeing that has always been there but it gets increasingly emphasized, now almost to the exclusion of any other way of seeing.

That way of seeing is simply this: art as something with utility.

Here’s a quick Internet definition of utility: “The state or condition of being useful.”

We increasingly see the value of art through its usefulness. What is troublesome about this is that it is almost antithetical to art. Part of the point to art is that has no utility, but we like it anyway. (By “no utility” I mean no practical utility. By practical we usually mean something like being able to generate money or at least customers or, if something like a painting, work with the decor of our house.)

It reminds me of the bullying expression, popular in schoolyards and online, “What are you good for?” The implication is that the person it is directed at is good for nothing. They are useless. They have no utility.

It’s not that art has no utility. Much of it does; much of the greatest was created out of a need to be useful, at least in some way. But not all. Not by a long stretch. Yet if we increasingly see art as needing to be useful, what becomes it? And how do we value it? And, if useful, to whom and why?

Maybe most concerning, however, is how that affects the way art is created. If artists think in terms of utility, how does that affect their creation?

I don’t think I have any great point here; just some questions and a concern over what I perceive as a one-sidedness to conversations about creativity, even people.

Must everything and everyone be useful in a practical sense? Or is there something singularly wonderful in things that are, and people who are, useless in any practical way?

As a banal example of what I mean, I have a dog. Some people have dogs that fetch the paper, flush geese, sniff out drugs. They have useful dogs. My dog, Molly, does none of these things. But I love her anyway and find her beautiful.

But she has no practical utility.