...on useful art? Surely not!

"The art of sculpture is long ago perished to any real effect. It was originally a useful art, a mode of writing, a savage's record of gratitude or devotion, and among a people possessed of a wonderful perception of form this childish carving was refined to the utmost splendour of effect.”

 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Art, 1841

 

Earlier in this illuminating essay, Emerson began to delineate the divergence between the fine and useful arts by unwrapping distinctions of each; and the first time I read Art, I – an Artist – palpitated with voracious anticipation as I awaited the divulgence of that which is deemed a useful art; as I have long delighted in and beheld art – in its myriad types – as something to be savoured, purely for enjoyment's sake; and that to lose and immerse oneself in the visual, musical, theatrical or written arts is the very antithesis of useful, which is defined by the OED as:

 

"USEFUL: adjective: able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways: aspirins are useful for headaches."

 

A useful art? Indeed! Those things which are useful are not – cannot be! – art; art is grander and more magnanimous than this! Then lo! That wondrous epiphany, which struck me like the proverbial tonne of bricks; the proverbial bolt out of the blue!

 

Purely a side comment here: as a Classicist, I can asservate that one need only circumnavigate the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (commonly abbreviated to CIL, which is an expansive compend of public and personal Latin inscriptions, and illuminates characteristics of ancient Roman life) to behold an entire civilisation's worth of useful art.

 

The usefulness of the above inscription is that it serves the intent of informing the viewer that the interred was (among other things) freeborn; though, from a family of freed slaves and that her property was to be conferred upon her family and freedmen and women (none of whom were to profit from it); and that if none of these were extant, to the colony of Ostia.

 

For me, this extraordinary epiphany I underwent was a flawless merging of two things I love: art and ancient Rome, begotten by the brilliant elucidation of my favourite Bard, and the repercussion of each thing upon the other, and the one who brought this about for me, is something that will remain with me for some time to come, and change, for all time, the manner in which I receive art and ancient Rome; through the eyes of one whom I admire.

 

What a glorious equilateral triangle!

 

Usseful art: funerary stele of Aurelius Hermia and his wife, Aurelia

Comments

opher goodwin Added Sep 8, 2017 - 7:55am
All art is useful. It pleases and soothes the senses; it engages the mind and promotes awe; it delights and inspires; it broadens horizons and develops the mind; it enriches life. What could possibly be more useful?
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 8, 2017 - 7:58am
When put that way, how could I *not* agree wholeheartedly = )
Autumn Cote Added Sep 8, 2017 - 8:28am
Please note, the second best way to draw more attention to your work is to comment on the work of others (not just Professor Taboo). I know this to be true because if you do, I'll do everything in my power to draw more attention to your articles.
 
PS - There is a lot I can do and would like to do on your behalf.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 8, 2017 - 9:21am
I have done (hurricane and Jesus, British socialised medicine, what the hell was that/Titanic, teenage girls/promiscuity/depression and a poem, etc.) and another today; and have also followed others; but, I've only been here for two days and I work; so, I will get there... = )
Dino Manalis Added Sep 8, 2017 - 9:36am
First of all, it has to be an art expression done creatively.
Autumn Cote Added Sep 8, 2017 - 10:17am
My apologies, I should not have advised you comment on the work of others, as it’s clear you’ve been doing quite a bit of commenting.  Many thanks, the action puts you on the list to have your work promoted to a wider readership.
 
What was the epiphany you had? 
 
That art can’t be useful and fine?  Or that when art is enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment it can’t be useful as well?  Or is only certain types of art like music, performing and theatrical that shouldn’t be classified as useful? 
 
Why was this epiphany so important?
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 8, 2017 - 10:44am
Absolutely no need to apologise = )
 
The epiphany was that art can be useful; and that heretofore, it was a purely emotional experience for me; and useful was practical.  And it connected two things I love: art and ancient Rome.  Interestingly, funerary inscriptions would not necessarily be studied in the context of art history; rather history.  And the connection was borne out of the words of someone whom I admire.  It was wonderful!
Leroy Added Sep 8, 2017 - 11:23am
Art is what makes life worth living.  But not all art is useful and it is in the eye of the beholder.  Most of what Picasso painted was garbage, IMHO.  Yet, if asked to name a famous painter, most would name Picasso.  While I can only appreciate it as garbage, many see it as art.  Personally, I believe his ability as an artist is a hoax perpetrated to make money off investers dumb enough to buy it.
 
 
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 8, 2017 - 11:33am
Leroy, a very astute observation.  Emerson said: "they seem frigid and phlegmatic to those who have been spiced with the frantic passion and violent coloring of inferior, but popular writers;" however, I think you're correct and the sentiment is also true of art and Artists...
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 8, 2017 - 1:31pm
DY, your examples are wonderful: skull and crossbones, cave paintings, symbols in the dirt, etc..  I would love to see Tatonka's pictographical autobiography.   Don't even start me off on how Caucasian people in many countries have oppressed and displaced aboriginal people.  
Shane Laing Added Sep 8, 2017 - 4:29pm
Art in all its forms is there to provoke discussion.  What one person thinks is great another may think is rubbish. Art is there to stimulate the conversation between them.
Phil Greenough Added Sep 8, 2017 - 5:45pm
How is performing art useful?
Leroy Added Sep 8, 2017 - 8:36pm
Phil, are you suggesting your child's piano recital is useless?  Are you unmoved when you hear the Star Spangled Banner sung?  Is there not some value in a stand up comic or a circus performer?  A live band?  A good play?  You must live a dull life.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 9, 2017 - 6:11am
When I read OG's comment above, I realised that my emotional reaponses to art were, in a sense, useful (another epiphany for me) and it begs the question of whether Emerson ought to have said, "practical;" as that would bolster his position, and indeed mine, more ably. Here, I will add one or two to Leroy's offering; performances I have seen that have profoundly moved me: Pavarotti, myriad productions at Shakespeare's Globe, Vaughan Williams' "Rhapsody on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," etc.  My list is rather extensive...
Saint George Added Sep 9, 2017 - 4:16pm
By Emerson's lights, therefore, outright propaganda art — such as propaganda posters used by the Nazis and the Soviets in the 1930s — is a higher, purer form of art than, e.g., a painting by Gauguin of topless women cavorting in Tahiti. The propaganda posters are useful because they serve a purpose beyond themselves (and some of the graphic artwork in them is highly acclaimed), while the Gauguin painting points only to itself, with no purpose in mind other than to give visual pleasure to any viewer who can appreciate it.
 
Not sure I would agree with Emerson on that.
opher goodwin Added Sep 9, 2017 - 6:09pm
Picasso said no piece of art was finished - it was merely abandoned.
Leroy - I think with art you have to get out of the thing of how much it costs or whether it is good or bad - just absorb it as it is. Some we like and some we don't. But all has value. To put a price on it detracts.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 9, 2017 - 7:04pm
SG--Emerson was actually referring to sculpture; therefore, visual arts did not enter the equation for him; however, some astute points were made by several people here to open the subject for wider discussion...
 
OG--I love it; I didn't know he said that.  Picasso was also very gifted with a pencil, and did not only paint abstracts.  Art is a very personal thing, and we would do well to be guided by our reactions to it rather than, as you rightly say, cost or even popularity...
Leroy Added Sep 9, 2017 - 8:17pm
Picasso probably had the skill.  His portrait of Aunt Pepa was decent, but he was no Rembrandt.  Art is certainly a personal thing.  My wife thinks our son has potential as an artist.  When you have to tell someone what it is, I am not sure you can call it art.  He's top in his class in finger painting though.  I don't know.  I think he has more potential than Picasso.  I think it falls in line with art only a mother could love.
wsucram15 Added Sep 9, 2017 - 8:22pm
Every expression is art. Writing, music, all forms of painted, print, textured, sculpted, glass, metal, plastic, ice, light, is Art.   I have seen some amazing pieces of Art and I guess until you know the heart that goes into it..you wont appreciate it.
 
Leroy is right..Art is meant to make life worth living and I dont think anyone not even Emerson has a right to define the parameters of "art".   As a lifelong art collector and creator..I appreciate all art, even the kid in the music room playing a horn or clarinet for the first time. 
 Many people never even try.
Jeff Jackson Added Sep 10, 2017 - 7:29am
Dear Classic: Please by all means feel free to bring in tons of marble into your backyard and carve, I don't know, maybe a copy of Michelangelo's David. If you build the stadium, they will come. I don't feel that art is wasted effort, in many ways it is therapeutic, and I love a good statue, and if you could copy Michelangelo's David I'd be willing to shell out a few bucks to buy a copy.
Jeff Jackson Added Sep 10, 2017 - 9:45am
Automobiles are art. Motorcycles are art. Buildings and houses are art. We are surrounded by art, except that we are taking a utilitarian point of view, rather than appreciating the art involved. The glass pyramid added to the Louvre was considered an atrocity for some little time. We create art in everyday objects, but we don't see it. It doesn't have to be hanging on a wall, in a park or in a museum to be art. Sometimes it is fun to go to the beach and appreciate the art that is there, the waves, the water, the sunshine, the girls in.. er, ah, yes, I appreciate art that isn't, as I said, hanging on a wall. I think you are interpreting art as something that has to be deliberately created as art. Learn to recognize the art around you, and encourage that art.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 10, 2017 - 10:03am
Jeff, maybe I will = )
 
And back to Emerson, he would have agreed with you:
 
"The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
 
Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow."
 
 
 
 
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 10, 2017 - 10:35am
DY--I said it before and I'll say it again: you completely "get" it!! = ))
Jeff Jackson Added Sep 10, 2017 - 1:17pm
Dannl, great book title "The Art of Poverty."
Saint George Added Sep 10, 2017 - 6:24pm
Emerson was actually referring to sculpture; therefore, visual arts did not enter the equation for him;
 
You believe sculpture is not a "visual art"? See:
 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_arts
"The visual arts are art forms such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking, and architecture."
 
By Emerson's lights, therefore, outright propaganda art — such as statues of Stalin, Mao, and Kim Jung-un — is a higher, purer form of art than, e.g., a sculpture by Brancusi such as "Bird in Space." The propaganda statues are useful because they serve a purpose beyond themselves (i.e., they reinforce to the rest of the population the political message of who their Great Leader is or was, and to whom they owe their daily bread), while the Brancusi sculpture points only to itself, with no purpose in mind other than to give visual pleasure to any viewer who can appreciate it. 
 
I don't think I agree with Emerson on that point.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 11, 2017 - 2:14am
Was meant to say "...other visual arts..."
opher goodwin Added Sep 11, 2017 - 4:43am
wsu - human beings are a work of art. Some are very abstract.
john guzlowski Added Sep 12, 2017 - 11:28am
Art is what keeps me going, more than football, more than religion.  
 
Art teaches he's me to see through foreign eyes, see through windows I've never seen before.
 
Art is the mother and father you always prayed for.  

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