There’s something delicious in swimming against the current, in doing things the hard way, in reinventing the wheel. I can’t help it. That’s the way I’ve been ever since I can remember myself. I remember my piano teacher writing out clever fingerings in one of my pieces that she knew from experience would make the playing easier. What did I do when I got home? Tried every conceivable other fingering I could think of, including some preposterously ridiculous ones, only to return, defeated, to the fingering she suggested in the first place.
In Maurice Maeterlinck’s fairy play The Blue Bird, the children travel all over the world looking for the magical blue bird that would fulfill all their wishes, only to return to their bedroom and realize that the blue bird was in its cage in their room all along. Was it a wasted journey? A Yoga guru I knew once said that you can never return exactly to the same spot no matter how hard you try, because by the time you returned the spot will have changed and you will have changed. You can never walk in the same footsteps twice. The moral in Maeterlinck’s story is that it is precisely the seemingly futile journeys we take with all their attendant experiences that allow us to come back to the place we started from and see it in a fresh light.
Impractical trips, blind alleys, re-inventing the wheel are not things an MBA would recommend. Our business-centered culture looks on them as a waste of time. Wasting time is anathema to a business culture. Business says: The best route between any two points is the shortest.
As an artist I thrive on inefficiency.
By the time I finished my futile exploration of all the fingerings my piano teacher didn’t recommend, I had gained a much deeper understanding of the one she did. Not only that. In the process I not only acquired her solution but "owned" it. It was no longer received wisdom, which as we know is no wisdom at all. It was a discovery.
Next to received wisdom "majority opinion" is the greatest enemy of thought. There is something fundamentally screwy about trusting the judgment of a majority on any issue. We all know how unreliable our individual judgment can be. When you compile millions of the same flawed judgments into public opinion you do not correct the underlying flaw, just make it louder. One misguided person is a nuisance, millions are a menace. When a vast majority of people ascribe to something we forget how unreliable each of their individual judgement is and accept their combined folly as proof of truth and desirability. It is this kind of loopy logic that gives us “best sellers” or high rated TV shows and movies. It’s also the logic behind the justification for the anti-Jewish laws in Nazi Germany (which most Germans supported), or the rightness of eating hamburgers at MacDonald’s (which billions of people also agree is a good idea). All people not only can be wrong, they are most of the time.
We avoid scrutinizing that which is “known”, that which has already been proven, so as to save time. Businessmen love efficiency, and in one way or another we are all businessmen. We are taught early on that results are all that matters. Minimizing reevaluation, reinvention, trial and error, is what we are taught since childhood. In multiple-choice school tests you are evaluated on your answers, not on the thought process that went into them. It is part of making us streamlined and thoughtless, compliant cogs in the wheel of national and business power games. The habit of thinking and reevaluating slows things down, causes discontent, and interferes with the smooth execution of the task at hand, like sending men to kill and die in wars. the habit of accepting unexamined truths helps you not to question that paycheck that was your compensation for producing the missile or cigarette that will kill someone you don't know.
We are a practical people. We have no time to waste on idle speculation. The old Hippy adage “Stop and smell the roses” has long fallen into disrepute as the kind of juvenile naiveté we have all outgrown. But even those who agree to succumb here and there to a weekend of rose smelling would never condone such wasteful pursuit for precious workday hours. Workday hours are for productive activities, things people are willing to pay money for. Nobody will pay you for smelling roses.
OK, maybe smelling roses all week is something for nursing home residents. But what about equally futile and unproductive pursuits like writing music no one wants to hear or painting canvases no one will ever buy, or sitting in a cave and meditating for 12 years? I could go on. What if you decided to reinvent the transistor (from scratch), or make a life’s work of copying Matisse, or (as I am doing now) write an article about useless endeavors such as the writing of articles about useless endeavors, etc., as if no one has ever entertained such an idea before?
These are the kind of useless musings and activities that artists and philosophers tend to engage in. Not artists that sell canvases for 3 million dollars mind you. Those are artists by name only. In fact they are purveyors of investment opportunities, who should rightly be listed on the NASDAQ in the commodities (or futures) section. No, I am talking here about the 99.9% of artists and inventors and street philosopher-writers and self-published poets and YouTube video troubadours (all no-good shits as one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters called them) who will be lucky to make $300 on any of their work. It is these “useless” artists that inspire me, because I feel a deep kinship to their total disregard to the tyranny of efficiency and the other edicts of our marketplace dictatorship.
By the way, if you find the convoluted and drawn out structure of my writing annoying, please accept my apologies. It is the residue of having had German as one of my childhood languages. German is notorious for stringing together verbs, nouns, and adjectives into monster length words, and has a way to put sentences within sentences with the noun only hinted at and not revealed until some half dozen lines have gone by. German is not an efficient language. You need a lot of patience to read German. It is a language that can exasperate English speakers used to our telegraphic and purposeful English syntax. As I said, we are a practical people.]
When you spend months and years tinkering away with some quest, some inquiry that may help you find beauty, maybe truth, maybe just a solution to a nagging question or puzzle, and when you stay up nights figuring out the best way to communicate what you have found to other people, you are engaged in the most meaningful useless endeavor there is.
Art is useless because its only usefulness is in its own existence. Just like us. You could say that human beings (and any living being, or for that matter non-living beings) are also useless works of art. Our existence is our purpose. We are all beautiful, profound, exasperating, amazing, awe-inspiring, disgusting, revelatory, scary, hilariously useless works of art. Abstract art.
Being useless makes art subversive in a utilitarian culture like ours. That is why artists are dangerous rebels even if their work is not rebellious. It’s being an artist which is both a threat and an inspiration to the rest of society. Art is inherently useless. Useful art, decorative art, art that sells clothes, or sweetens TV commercials, or makes investors rich, is not really art but a commercial product. I have no problem with commercial art. I just leave the discussion of it to economists.
The fact that art and literature today attract more interest and participation than ever before is a symptom of a deep-seated knowledge that there are values other than the ones we live by. Art and artists are symbols. They represent a possibility that we all feel has been stunted within us - the permission to make mistakes on purpose, to follow wrong turns with a glee, to be curious about silly things, to venture into dark unknowns for no reason, and mostly to chase blue birds.
My friend Kent, a sculptor, has been painstakingly carving a giant tree trunk only to find out that he may have wasted three months on something a new computerized machine could crank out in an hour. I asked him if he felt foolish? “Not really” he said, “That machine would’ve learned nothing in that hour”. We are attracted to artists like Kent because even if we ourselves don’t seem to have the courage, or as some would say, the stupidity, to do things the hard way, the long and inefficient way, we know that there is a forgotten truth in what he does. I believe that even those who would label artists like Kent “flaky” or impractical, are secretly envious of his ability to access so easily what they themselves have buried so deep.
To me “useless” is a badge of honor. It indicates the willingness to go against received wisdom, against the tyranny of efficiency. It is a call to go down well-trodden paths for the millionth time and discover them anew, to spend your time on pursuits whose rewards may not be monetary or even tangible.
Useless is the ultimate rebellion against consumer culture. Reinventing the wheel is its battle cry.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)