In the forward to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “All art is quite useless.” No question mark at the end.
This statement puzzles me. Why would an artist say art is useless? Did he really believe that? You could interpret this statement as an introduction to the themes later explored in the novel, but I’m not sure I do.
Because when asked by a fan what this famous line meant, Wilde responded with a handwritten letter. In this letter, Wilde posited that art does not and should not inspire action in anyone. If it does, it ceases to be art and instead turns into didacticism. Therefore, if art cannot by its very nature inspire action, then it has no applicable use to anyone.
Oscar Wilde was a brilliant guy. I don’t claim to be smarter than him or a better writer than him. And I’m certainly not a better dresser (see above picture). But I’ll say this: I think art is quite useful.
Art is useful in the way that it moves us. If a work of art can stir emotion, whether it’s delight, sadness, anger, or even disgust, I’d say it’s done something quite significant. After all, if you cried when Bambi’s mom bit the dust (don’t deny it), you cried for a cartoon animal that only ever existed as a series of drawings shown in rapid succession. What else but art has the power to make us care about things that don’t even exist?
Even art that serves merely as distraction, what Wilde describes as “sterile” art, can be useful. Because sometimes we really do need a distraction from reality. When times are tough, it’s cathartic to watch a TV show or read a book—to take a break from what’s going on around us. Art won’t necessarily present us with permanent solutions, but that’s alright. Oftentimes that brief respite gives us the strength we need to face tomorrow’s challenges.
Art helps us better understand each other, which is perhaps one of its most important uses. For example, numerous studies suggest that reading improves empathy. When we step into the minds of characters, their thoughts and feelings are described to us, which bridges a gap we otherwise can’t cross (excluding telepaths). If empathy is understanding how others feel, there’s no better way to develop it than by having those feelings explained to us.
So is all art really quite useless? Well, maybe some of it (the Transformers series of films come to mind). But certainly not all of it. If a particular piece of art moves you, or helps you get through a tough time, or shows you the world from a different perspective, then that piece of art is useful. Quite useful.