I have often heard it said that “art is useless”.
True, it doesn’t serve the immediate function of a fork, but does this render it a luxury item?
If “functionality” is relegated to such base tools as a fork, hammer or tampon, while the very thing that differentiates us from other species is our intellectual faculty, if we are to proclaim that “art is useless”, this intimates that anything that is a result of a deviation from our most animalistic needs and wants – that is, a result of thought – is useless.
Let us take a stroll back to Italy in the 17th Century, also known as the Baroque. The Catholic Church, then in rivalry with Protestant camps, used the weight of tradition combined with fine arts to draw the people back to it. Whether through Caravaggio’s dramatic brush or Bernini’s ability to manipulate marble so that its cold stone flesh screamed with life, the Church and its artists enchanted the illiterate. The Catholic faith became something grand, awe-inspiring even.
This is certainly a triumph of art in partnership with religion, but more importantly it is a clear demonstration of the potential function of art as a tool of propaganda, of armour. An armour that ensured the survival and maintained power of the Catholic Church throughout Europe, as well as the rest of the world.
Is this not a function?
If we take the tradition of portraiture from the same period – whether through austere marble busts or stately paintings – one can determine that showing teeth was simply not done. It was considered rude, a betrayal of man’s carnality and a possible sign of madness. This was the case as late as the 18th century (perhaps due to the poor quality of dental care) until the radical exhibition of Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Portrait of the Artist with her Daughter in 1786. It is a double portrait of Vigée-Lebrun, genteel and demure, accompanied by her small daughter who is smiling – gasp! – with parted lips.
Granted, you could not use this painting as an implement to eat with, it does not perform that particular function. But, it is far from useless. It quite concisely illustrates the ability of art to capture information on a past society as well as its power to contest, challenge and change views and assumptions.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when art becomes aware of itself. The example that comes to the forefront of my mind is Pop Art, the visual result of consumer culture and a perfect example of art as mirror. It quite plainly shows us what we consume and how we are manipulated to do it. Its very existence is a commentary on its own nature.
Nowhere can we find a more literal example of our “supermarket society” than in Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box series of 1964. Television-packaged experiences then dominated society. They still do. Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were unsettling as he chose to directly replicate the mundane commercial packaging of a household product, thereby sensationalising it into a glamorous and desirable commodity. Warhol effectively rejected the elitism of “high art” by embracing its superficial and true nature. It is a mockery and critique, endlessly ironic even when exhibited, the “boxes” stacked as if on a supermarket floor.
It is quite clear they no longer serve their original purpose. These boxes do not contain Brillo steel wool, yet does this render them useless? A non-functional, luxury item? Do they not destabilise the definition of high-culture and fine art, thereby promoting critical thinking that forces us to realise our mindless roles as the consumers of the capitalist system?
The 19th Biennale of Sydney, apart from affording a major opportunity for artists across Australia and the world to exhibit, as well as pulling huge crowds to experience contemporary art, this year gave rise to a quite serious debate. It began with the controversy over a (founding) sponsor of the Biennale, Transfield Holdings, due to their involvement in the operation of a detention center on Manus Island. Nine artists pulled out of the Biennale in protest, which saw the resignation of Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, director of Transfield Holdings, as chairman of the Biennale. Further debates were sparked in the online journalistic community over the point of it all, questioning the very involvement of the Australian government in the Biennale (through their funding of the Australia Council, a major supporter) being that they are the ones who granted the contract to Transfield Holdings in the first place.
It goes to show that art, once again, has afforded a platform for debate and awareness. The situation is messy no doubt, and it is has become unclear what the real issue is, or who is to blame. What is clear, however, is that the advent of a major arts event such as the Biennale, which pulls major sponsors and draws a massive amount of public attention, has albeit unintentionally given rise to outcry and questioning in the powers that be.
Now, tell me that this is not a stellar example of art as “challenger”.
So, we have determined that art is considered useless from the functional point of view of a fork. But if we place any value in the higher-intelligence of the human race over other species of the animal kingdom, we can likewise determine that art has many functions, that of armour, propaganda, reflection and challenger to name but a few. It can be wielded as a tool for promoting critical thinking and has on occasion been the instigator of revolutions. Some of these functions conflict, but that they do so is a clear indication that art – whether high-brow, experimental or commercial – performs many a function and is thus far from useless.