Art is Useless

I was recently reminded of a book I read in senior year of high school, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I enjoyed the book, and I love Oscar Wilde, but the arguments Wilde made in the preface to the book were ones I couldn’t agree with. Wilde talks about how art is useless and should not have anything to do with the artist. Here are a few quotes that stood out to me:

“To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim”

“No artist desires to prove anything.”

“All art is quite useless.”

These claims shocked me because everything I had been taught about art was completely contrary to these ideas. Everything we have learned in this class about how Steve Prince makes art is also contrary to these claims. Prince puts his entire life into his art, packing each piece with things that are connected to his own views. Prince uses his art to start conversations; it is the opposite of useless. In Prince’s lecture “Kitchen Talk” he talked about how when he makes art he does it with purpose, that’s why when it’s finished he can describe the meaning of every single aspect of the piece. He told the story of how after he had given a lecture a professor asked him about why he explains his art so thoroughly and why it isn’t able to speak for itself. Prince said that when he took art classes in high school he was taught this as well but had always made art with intention, knowing what each part of his piece meant. I don’t think either of these methods of making art are wrong, but Prince’s way of doing it makes more sense to me.

When I took art classes in high school I was surprisingly not taught that art should speak for itself. My art teacher consistently pushed us to make art that meant something to us and had the potential to mean something to others as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean everything had to be premeditated, but my art teacher did urge us to have at least a value outline for where the piece was going.  I’ve made art where at first I had no idea where it was going to go or what it would become, but as I worked, different ideas would come into my head and that’s when I discovered what I wanted it to mean. But I have also had experiences where I knew exactly what I wanted to put on the paper and what meaning I wanted to convey with it. The only issue was I did not have the skill to execute things exactly as I planned them. The idea I had in my head of how something was going to look versus how it comes out has always been completely different. I could be wrong but based on Prince’s confidence when he is drawing It seems as though it comes out exactly how he intended it to. In the huge 40ft woodcut “Song for Aya” Prince showed in his Kitchen Talk Lecture, he pointed out how there were ferns all throughout it and how everything connected. I can’t imagine that this was done on the spot, he must have planned how he wanted it to be first. I still don’t think there’s a wrong way to make art, but the amount of meaning that Prince is able to pack into his art will always be impressive to me.

But while Prince does have his own meaning for his art, he is open to (and even encourages) viewers to get their own meanings from his art too. His intent is not the only answer, it’s just one answer among many. There was one part in the preface that sort of reflects this idea. Wilde wrote, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.” While I think art can mirror the artists perspective on life, I agree that “diversity of opinion” is what can give art layers and layers of meaning.

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