The sublime uselessness of art



If art works to change the world in any way, it does so subliminally, uncontrollably, and by means that usually aren’t summarized in an artist’s purposes when making a poem, or song, or painting. In other words, art is life, as much as it’s a reflection of it, and only diminishes itself by becoming some instrument used to achieve a particular end in the world. I didn’t realize Stanley Fish had quit writing his columns for The New York Times until several months had gone by, and I suddenly identified the feeling of something lacking from my visits to the Times online. I realized it was his voice. So I ordered a compilation of his columns: “Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.” It’s such a relief to hear him say things like this again:

These columns are written under the shadow of the (perennial) “crisis of the humanities,”a crisis to which humanists have responded by mounting ever more elaborate (and unconvincing) justifications of the humanities as a practice that will save democracy, if not the world. These justifications, wittingly or unwittingly, have the effect of implying that the humanities have nothing to say for themselves, that any defense of them can only be instrumental. An instrumental defense of the humanities is a defense that rests everything on the humanities’ usefulness to some other project—a robust economy, the realization of democratic principles, a peaceful world. The question posed to the humanities is “What are you good for?,”and the answer is assumed to issue from a measure of “good”that the humanities do not contain. The answer given in the columns reprinted here is that the humanities are good for nothing, for that is the only answer that preserves the humanities’ distinctiveness. If humanistic work is valued because of what it does politically or economically or therapeutically, it becomes an appendage to these other projects, and in a pinch it will always be marginalized and perhaps discarded when its instrumental payoff fails to arrive, as it always will. The paradox is that the stronger the case made for the utility of the humanities, the weaker the case for their support. In order to be truly healthy, at least in an internal way, the humanities must be entirely disassociated from the larger world of political/ social/ economic consequences, must, that is, be appreciated for their own sake and for no other reason.

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