When Art is Useless

In “The Mother of Demos” (cough. ahem.) in December 1968, a man named Engelbart first publicly introduced the concepts of basic modern computing: the computer mouse, hypertext, windows, graphics, and even video conferencing.

His contributions have changed the world. Why did he do it?

In this interview, he said, “I realized that I didn’t have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after.” He later asked himself, “How can my career maximize my contribution to mankind?”

“I thought, ‘Damn, I never realized the world is so complicated. If we don’t improve our ability to deal collectively with complex things, as the problems grow more urgent, we’re in trouble.”‘ – David Engelbart

(Well, Engelbart, we ARE in a bit of trouble, but maybe your contributions will be enough to get us out of hot water.)

This is all well and interesting, but what does it have to do with Oscar Wilde? 

Authors are usually seen as frumpy aesthetics who make very little impact on the world. They live in the popular consciousness hiding from contemporary issues and shoved off to the side, chipping away at only timeless concepts, as only timeless concepts are worth noting on.

The more I research noteworthy authors, the more it becomes absolutely obvious that this is not the case.

Charles Dickens wrote in disgust of child poverty during a time of child labor, and though he didn’t exactly pull Britain up by its bootstraps himself, his works continue to highlight issues of poverty decades later.

“‘The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.'” – Charles Dickens, The Christmas Carol

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the first science fiction success (written by a woman, I might add), speaks to many concerns about the growing nature of science, but it also spoke about our duty to children and the oppressed.

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was written to help save crumbling Gothic architecture of Paris, which was in disrepair at the time.

George Orwell may have been writing about communism, but he was also writing about his own government, as he had spent time policing the citizens of Burma. Over time, he grew to sympathize with the locals and was disturbed by the way they were being treated. He had a dark and unique view into systems of oppression.

Of particular notice to me recently is the life of W. B. Yeats, who wrote about a free, mystical, and powerful Ireland while its citizens were being horribly oppressed, but when violence broke out wrote of “a terrible beauty” being born. His life and work was intrinsically political, modern, plugged in, even into his twilight years.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
– W.B. Yeats, September 1913

There are hundreds of examples of this intense well-meaning behind words, and yes, obvious ones we learn about in our high school class like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle.

These are all reactions – proactive or passive ones – to the world as it is now, and the books are often strategies or warnings for either making the world a better place or avoiding disasters. 

The art form is about avoiding the unappealing preachiness of politics and activists, which will never be listened to, and mastering subtly behind emotion-based storytelling.

Meanwhile, there’s a danger in being too subtle as well, as what one generation finds ironic and funny, the next generation takes literally.

Rarely are media actually “art for art’s sake.” Rarely is it about ONLY the aesthetic, and I daresay that the more it claims to be so, the less it is.

In other words, the author is absolutely rooted in, if not politics, then methodologies for expanding and improving upon humanity or the world, usually in the form of human empathy. 

Chasing the illusion of “timelessness,” of creating the perfect romance or the perfect adventure story, or making a story for the ages is not only usually fruitless, but it’s very much not the point to writing fiction in the first place. The only reason why the classics I’ve mentioned are considered to be “timeless classics,” is that problems or goals the works point out happen to be still relevant today, or we’ve somewhat reinvented the work to make them still relevant (for better and for worse).

If your story about mermaids can help a queer young person discover themselves, good. If it’s a gripping story that anyone can relate to, better. But if it can do both, you’ve done something greater for yourself AND the world.

“But I don’t want to make my book political!” Then don’t! But don’t pursue “timelessness” or “wider appeal” instead in the hopes of bettering your career. As soon as you step out and publish, you’ve joined what goes by that ugly term, the “free market of ideas.” You’re a part of it now. Don’t water down the wine. At the very least aim to make at least one person (even if that person is your mother) uncomfortable.

Frequently “timeless classics” are politically-minded, now-focused, future-looking works of extreme opinions that make people (especially those in power) feel very uncomfortable. Don’t believe me? Here’s the most challenged and banned classics of all time. They’re almost taught in high school curriculum.

banned books


Art is functional, and frequently uncomfortable. Putting it to the use of the ruling class is propaganda; creating only art for the use of “the people” is communistic censorship. We need to be wise to which ideologies we’re pushing, of course, but it’s alarming to me how many people – writers, authors, bloggers, creators – haven’t even considered whether their work would improve someone else’s life at all.

If this feels off, it’s because it’s skirting around a particular ugly fact that most vain, ego-driven writers like me don’t like to think about: writing isn’t about you.

While there is so much to be said about the power of writing as art therapy for yourself, the most powerful ideas you can promote in your fiction helps people help themselves. This is why people both support and revile escapism of high fantasy, as high fantasy may (pro-escapism) or may not (anti-escapism) get this needed emotional labor done.

But what’s more noble than just pushing your own agenda is giving people the tools and framework to express and discover their own repressed thoughts or new ideas. The most successful creators of our time – arguably J.K. Rowling and George Lucas – created worlds in which people felt at ease to express themselves, rather than preachy, unsubtle, politically-minded narratives. (Though both J.K. Rowling’s and George Lucas’s works were incredibly politically minded in terms of showing how one would easily dismantle a democracy. Em. Whoops.)

In that way, a high fantasy author is exactly like someone showing the world how to interact with a computer – we show off a completely new framework for how to solve important problems. 

Okay, back to Oscar Wilde, the aesthetics-focused, cape-wearing, fabulous man who’s life was a tragedy enough to rival his own work.

His preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is possibly my favorite page of classic literature, because there are so many direct and somewhat contradicting statements that explore the function of art that it’s hard not to taste the flavors of irony.

“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I would say very much that this is true.

And yet, the book itself is somewhat of a morality tale, in which the morality is to destroy false binaries between morality and immorality.

And yet, at the time, the book was considered to be horrifically immoral.

And yet, this preface of his book was actually quoted in Wilde’s trial, in which he was convicted of several years of jail time for what was essentially immorality at the time (homosexuality).

People used this concept and quite literally attacked him with it.

But, at least until the trial, he was fairly comfortable at other people’s dismay:

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

And yet he goes on to say:

“All art is quite useless.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Can a thing be useless and vital?

It’s a strong, and necessary, opinion to promote art for art’s sake. But let’s not get confused: Oscar Wilde’s statements about art being useless and vital and neither immoral or moral was very much STILL a response to his times.

In his time, there was a real danger of an author being attacked for making the reader feel a certain, new way.

Art for art’s sake is a political statement that promotes the protection of creators, encourages holistic readings of texts, and increases more and better art production on the whole. 

Saying art is “useless” gives it permission to exist.

Can art be functional or useless? Can it be moral, immoral, or neither? Can it be a response to the times, or an attempt of capturing the timeless? Can it be beautiful, admired, ugly, or uncomfortable? Can it be created for one’s self only or can it really help people by discovering new paradigms, shifting our views, changing focus?

Well… yes.

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