So says Oscar Wilde in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray – along with a handful of other epigrams describing Wilde’s aesthetic philosophies, but all culminating in this rather curious assertion that all art is quite useless.
The first time I read that, my initial instinct was to rage against the idea that art had no meaning and no purpose other than to be pleasing to one’s eye. So I read the line again, and then again. And then again. I reread it over and over until it made sense. And then, I loved it. You see, Oscar Wilde was part of something called the “art for art’s sake” movement – a 19th century movement that began as a reaction to the notion that art had a moral function. You could say it was started as a way to assert artistic freedom at its most basic level. All art is quite useless because art is not a tool; it is a platform. It is a reflection of the artist who creates it, without ego and without purpose.
But this, Wilde said in 1891. Art has come a long way since then, and the art world has gone even further still. Art today is created with purpose and is as much a mechanism as it is a platform. Why? Because it’s universal, it’s political, and it’s critical; it is a reflection and a commentary of the society which creates it and as such, it is the only platform for change.
And isn’t that just the thing.
All art may have been quite useless to Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries at the height of British colonialism… but for persons living in societies and cultures where the freedom to express oneself isn’t considered a fundamental right, art is the most useful thing there is. It’s a place where a picture is worth more than just a thousand words—it’s worth that single evocative emotion; it’s worth that moment where misconceptions are shattered and the truth wins out and we are left with nowhere to hide and no way to un-feel truth.
Glorious, isn’t it? The spark of change always is.
You might say it’s strange for me to love thinking about Wilde’s philosophy; that it’s a bizarre pastime for someone who works at a nonprofit art gallery focused on championing art from Iran—a country with a rich artistic repertoire but an unfortunate lack of exposure—but how else are we to take notice of silenced voices if not by articulating precisely why art is not useless. I’ll think about his philosophy and point to Hossein Khosrojerdi or Shirin Neshat and show you exactly how useful art is. I’ll shine a light on the hundreds of Iranian artists with something to say, waiting to be heard, and maybe – just maybe, you’ll see why art is not quite useless, after all.