…on “useful” art? Surely not!

“The art of sculpture is long ago perished to any real effect. It was originally a useful art, a mode of writing, a savage’s record of gratitude or devotion, and among a people possessed of a wonderful perception of form this childish carving was refined to the utmost splendour of effect.” 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Art, 1841

Earlier in this illuminating essay, Emerson began to delineate the divergence between the fine and useful arts by unwrapping distinctions of each; and the first time I read Art, I – an Artist – palpitated with voracious anticipation as I awaited the divulgence of that which is deemed a useful art; as I have long delighted in and beheld art – in its myriad types – as something to be savoured, purely for enjoyment’s sake; and that to lose and immerse oneself in the visual, musical, theatrical or written arts is the very antithesis of useful, which is defined by the OED as: 

“USEFUL: adjective: able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways: aspirins are useful for headaches.

A useful art?  Indeed!  Those things which are useful are not – cannot be! – art; art is grander and more magnanimous than this!  Then lo!  That wondrous epiphany, which struck me like the proverbial tonne of bricks; the proverbial bolt out of the blue!

Purely a side comment here: as a Classicist, I can asservate that one need only circumnavigate the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (commonly abbreviated to CIL, which is an expansive compend of public and personal Latin inscriptions, and illuminates characteristics of ancient Roman life) to behold an entire civilisation’s worth of useful art.

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Inscription first published in 1939 by G. Calza

The usefulness of the above inscription is that it serves the intent of informing the viewer that the interred was freeborn; though, from a family of freed slaves and that her property was to be conferred upon her family and freedmen and women (none of whom were to profit from it); and that if none of these were extant, to the colony of Ostia.

For me, this extraordinary epiphany I underwent was a flawless merging of two things I love: art and ancient Rome, begotten by the brilliant elucidation of my favourite Bard, and the repercussion of each thing upon the other, and the one who brought this about for me, is something that will remain with me for some time to come, and change, for all time, the manner in which I receive art and ancient Rome; through the eyes of one whom I admire.  

What a glorious equilateral triangle!

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Useful art: funerary stele of Aurelius Hermia and his wife, Aurelia

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3 thoughts on “…on “useful” art? Surely not!

  1. Somehow I can’t see Michelangelo laying on his back for all those days creating his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just for it to be useful or “handy” as I like to say. Even Pope Julius who was adamant that Michelangelo take the job had a vision of having many layers of meaning didn’t view the symbolism as just “handy”. I guess for some Art “comes in handy” to fill an empty wall but for others like myself it goes way beyond that. I can’t imagine a day in my life without giving any form of art the reverence and deep admiration that it so deserves. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Whilst I was reading that bit for the first time, I kept repeating…”art? Useful? Art? Useful?” The tying bond for me was the funerary inscriptions; any inscriptions. You receive art as you do because you appreciate beauty:. Read “Nature:” it does not exist for our benefit; rather puts itself forward through us, and I am constantly reminded of this when I read your poetry xxx

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