The late Peter Steele once said that functionless art is simply tolerated vandalism.
However it could be argued that there is no such thing as functionless art and that vandalism can serve a purpose. “Function” and “art” are relative concepts. The value of a function coincides with one’s own definition of utility.
For example, I would love to own a Nissan GTR. From the perspective of function it meets a lot of criteria for a vehicle of its type. It goes fast, has excellent handling and in my view, looks awesome. The underlying engineering, from its sodium engine valves to the vehicle’s exceptional turning radius is almost artisan in its crafting.
However while I know driving a GTR would be a lot of fun, I can accept that it isn’t a practical vehicle for my everyday life. Much of my time driving it would be spent idling in traffic and it lacks the people carrying capacity I require. Keeping with the Nissan family, I have no doubt that my functional needs would be better met by the less expensive Maxima or Rogue. Nevertheless, the idea of owning a GTR is tantalizing!
It could be argued that with the above example, I’m conflating engineering with art but I believe that the distinction is meaningless. Engineering a novel’s plot requires similar mental faculties to designing disc brakes or tie rods. In all these cases, imagination is being employed in order to deal with reality.
There may be specialist engineers who scoff at this. However I’d remind them that the most influential engineers in history were also artists and writers. Thinkers like HG Wells, Jules Verne, Leonardo Da Vinci and Cornelius Drebbel anticipated nuclear weapons, submarines, manned flight and space travel long before the scientific and engineering community actually made these things happen.
Leo Szilard, the physicist who patented the idea of the nuclear reactor and key figure in the Manhattan Project was among the first to recognise that writers like Wells and Verne – and not the scientific establishment – had correctly predicted the viability and dangers of atomic energy. Without that acknowledgement and Szilard’s extrapolations, the world would be a very different place than it is today.
When it comes to writing or any other art-form, I subscribe to a quasi-Shaker ideal that art should possess both form and function. In my view the reading public unconsciously or consciously decides their reading preference on this basis too.
Occasionally, function is emphasised over form. For example, the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy, the fastest selling novels in history, is high on function and low on form. Some might say content too. But from a functional perspective it achieves the goal being (depending on your point of view) an entertaining diversion.
From the perspective of form however, its prose style is simplistic and irritating. Is it accessible? Certainly! However I’d argue that like junk food or trinkets, Fifty Shades is a prime example of a disposable consumer good, a fact demonstrated by the vast number of copies being donated to charity stores.
Will the Fifty Shades Trilogy prove as culturally significant as the Decameron, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or the works of Wells or Dickens? It’s hard to say for certain. Yet its success is indicative of consumer demand motivated by the reality of modern concerns about gender roles, sexuality and the breaking of social taboos. Its perspective on these subjects can be challenged as unrealistic, inaccurate, sexist or simplistic but as a female friend reminded me, it achieves the utility of being escapist fluff.
Recently my day-job brought me into contact with an arts and craft supplies store. Observing the customers there, I was reminded of Peter Steele’s comments stated at the beginning of this essay.
When seeking advice from store employees about the on-hand merchandise each patron was quick to emphasise the purpose behind why they were constructing whatever they intended making. It was as if each customer felt that they had to justify being creative and that engaging in creative efforts required ethical sanction from a perceived authority.
It occurred to me at the time that I was witnessing in microcosm a facet of modern living. Ours is a management oriented society where values of utility and stability are valued more than creativity. The result has been in my opinion social and economic stagnation.
Yet despite all that I felt a surge of optimism upon seeing the sheer numbers of people in that store who were choosing to be creative. Perhaps, that creativity will, if freed from the constraints of our managerial society engineer a social, economic and cultural revival.
Wouldn’t that be the best form of vandalism?
References and further reading:
On Fifty Shades charity store donations
On Szilard and the role of fiction in the history of nuclear physics see PD Smith Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon