Art and Wonder

It’s a beautiful waterfall in Hawaii.

I went there for vacation last week and I saw some amazing waterfalls, lakes, the beach, the ocean, and other great pleasures. Throughout the trip, I learned a little about the history of Hawaii and was amazed that a group of primitive people could simply create this wonderful art pieces: they basically had to move waterfalls and create them so that they can irrigate their crops and get freshwater.  Now while I’m dazzled that people way back in the third through the seventh century can do this, I was also thinking about how beautiful their creation was.  Just look at it!  But then I thought to myself, “now wait a minute.  They probably weren’t thinking about something beautiful, they only made the waterfall in order to move the water for other purposes.  In this case, farming.  In fact, I doubt they intentionally made something beautiful at all.”  Can art be still art if there’s no intention behind it?  But then something else came to my mind: what if other art pieces are like this?  Think of the chair you’re sitting in, for example.  We think of this chair as a functional piece: it’s something to sit on.  But what if 1,000 years from now, a future civilization would look at the chair as an art object, and they considered it beautiful?  I don’t think I could consider my chair as an art object, although I could if I tried.  But this makes me think what art is.  When people create something, it’s usually for funtional or mechanical purposes.  I don’t think people intentionally create something beautiful but also functional at the same time.  Then it hit me.  Art is useless. Now I don’t mean to say that art is worthless.  Art is wonderful, check out a museum or listen to some great music.  What I mean is that art carries some characteristic where it’s no longer function, or it has no purpose.  Think of a regular baseball.  It’s purpose is to play catch with it.  But what if it was signed by Babe Ruth for example?  There’s no way you’d play with that ball.  Thus, the ball has lost it’s functionality and has become useless (note, not worthless).  Thus, we keep the ball but not for functional purposes, but for aesthetic purposes (or purhaps monetary in the case of the baseball).  So maybe art has that defining characteristic, it’s useless, meaning that it serves no function.

When we go to museums, we see many tools that people in the past used.  But those tools (some piece of pottery, for example) served a purpose.  It was to carry things.  But now, it no longer serves that purpose, it’s lost it’s functionality and it’s now useless.  Thus, we call it art.  Are all useless things art?  No, a broken pen is simply a broken pen, and it will perhaps never be displayed in a museum.  But I do think that all art does have the characteristic of uselessness, meaning it serves no function.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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8 Responses to Art and Wonder

  1. Killer J says:

    Good post man. I agree with your premise, but I’ll try to spark some debate. What about the movement arts, like ballet? Would the health benefits for practitioners and entertainment value for the audience be considered a use?

    Or, would those ‘uses’ be similar to the entertainment that staring at an archaic pot provides (and thus, useless by your definition)?

    Would music be any different? I’m not sure what I’m getting at, but perhaps only visual art is useless.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Good point. Things like ballet, concerts, and dances are considered art. So are they considered useless too?

    Oooo, what about cooking? Chef’s are always trying to perfect their art in cooking and so I guess going to a cooking contest is considered art too.

    Music is always changing so listening to music doesn’t have that uselessness aspect after all. If it did, the CD would be used as a Frisbee or something like that. So I guess this only pertains to visual arts that are static. Where you admire it and look at it from afar?

    Maybe we can try this with things with sounds. For example, many people find the sound of ocean waves calming, but it doesn’t seem to loose it’s usefulness. Good call. I guess this definition only pertains to visual arts that are static.

  3. Art certainly does not have to be useless. I consider many games that I play art, but they give me enjoyment and insight into the world. Same with music, books, movies, anime, etc.


  4. shaunmiller says:

    Hey Vic, sure art can be wonderful and gives one pleasure. My concern was the purpose of the artist making into an art object, or if it just happened by accident. I guess this goes back to if art is objective or not.

    Well that brings up an interesting question, suppose that all of humanity is now extinct, would the Mona Lisa be considered art?

  5. Killer J says:

    haha, isn’t that like the ‘if a tree falls in the forest’ question?

  6. shaunmiller says:

    Yeah, in a way it is. I often ask my class to define “beauty.” Of course, the typical reply I get is “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I then ask them if the Grand Canyon is beautiful. Most of them say yes. I ask them would the Grand Canyon be beautiful if there weren’t any humans around? Usually, the students say yes. Then I finally reply “then beauty cannot be the eye of the beholder because that would mean the Grand Canyon isn’t beautiful unless someone’s looking or thinking about it.” It gets them thinking.

    But I’ve often wondered if the same applies to art. . .

  7. Mateja says:

    “I don’t think people intentionally create something beautiful but also functional at the same time.”……ehhhem Mr. Miller….
    I am an architecture student at the University of Hawaii and quite frankly your immature statements are insulting. I say immature because your statements (or thoughts) have not matured and you should think about them in grater depth before you write them down and criticize art.
    Actually my profession, my studies, my life, the blood that runs through my veins, constantly yearns to link the two descriptions you mention above….art and form, function and aesthetic. That is what we do. Everyday. All day.
    And it is not useless. Quite the contrary. You, as ignorant as you are, enjoy art constantly. How about the toothbrush you use everyday…someone designed that. They designed it to function well; the size/shape/material/strength of the bristles are designed for maximum effectiveness, the elongated piece from which you hold this “tool” is designed for the ultimate balance and comfort of your hand…and yet, it is still beautiful. Even though its main purpose is functional, it has also been designed to be aesthetically pleasing. Why? Because we are creatures who are drawn to beauty and art. Studies prove that babies prefer to stare at more attractive faces…yes, it’s true. (

    As far as the Native Hawaiians, I cannot say for fact, but I would bet that they did also divert waterfalls for their beauty, or at least found were pleasantly surprised when they discovered the beauty they had created. The entire Hawaiian philosophy is based upon respecting the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural environment.

    If you can’t see your chair as a piece of art then its possible that need a better chair, one designed with passion and creativity…or while you are at it, find a log that has been discarded by someone who didn’t value its art or aesthetic value and carve your own beautiful chair. You will become a better person in the process. I assure you.

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hello Mateja, it’s a good response. I appreciate your concern for art and how to combine it’s aesthetic appreciation with it’s function. Architecture is a good example of this. With your post, it’s made me rethink about the purpose of art. I think Frank Lloyd Wright would agree with your assessment. In terms of seeing something as both art and practical function at the same time, I’m still out on the boat on this one. I think you can see an object and a piece of equipment, a tool, or some practical function. However, that same piece can also be seen as art. However, I don’t think it’s possible to look at it simultaneously. For example, check out this duck-rabbit: I can see this as a duck; I can see this as a rabbit. But I can’t see it as both a duck and a rabbit simultaneously. Your perspective switches when you see them as two different animals. I believe it’s the same with art and practical functions. I can see my toothbrush and my chair as pieces of art, but not when I’m using them.

      I do play the violin so I understand the art pieces behind it. However, I recall David Hume’s notion of the aesthetic: it seems that to really appreciate art, one must not think about it. For example, when I’m playing the violin, it’s really hard for me to get into the aesthetic moment because I’m thinking of playing the right notes, where to put my fingers, the tempo and rhythm of the song as well. In short, I’m focusing on the technique. Technique and aesthetics, I believe, are inversely proportional. When I go see a symphony, I sometimes can’t enjoy the art behind it because I’m too focused on the technique of the violin players. I’m sure that when you see buildings and houses, your technique and scholarly outlook gets in the way of seeing the aesthetic quality behind it.

      Thus, I do believe that art is important because it gives us a sense of who we are, but if one uses the practical function of the art piece, it destroys the aesthetic quality. Imagine if I took down the Mona Lisa and used it as a rag. It has a practical function, but it would totally destroy the aesthetic quality. Likewise, if I look at it purely as a piece of art, I can’t use it as a function.

      I don’t mean to belittle your profession. Architecture is a wonderful and aspiring goal. But with Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, there were some people that didn’t want to live in it, mainly because they felt it would destroy the aesthetic quality behind it.

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