Students of art and similar disciplines are often pressured to justify their choice of study. This usually entails some sort of explanation of the functions performed by their objects of study: perhaps they are meant to entertain or convey important messages. There is a need to rationalize these fields and portray them as something useful in an effort to receive respect.
Of course, I don’t want to claim that paintings, music, films, etc. have no use. Rather, I think that our ideas about art’s place in society should not be limited to a discussion of function. We seem almost restricted by our means-end rationality: that everything has to be discussed in terms of the end result they help us achieve. We instrumentalize art in the way that we apply this rationality to it - we want to know how it can be used almost like a tool in order to help us achieve something.
After I read Theodor W. Adorno’s short essay titled “Theses on Need,” however, I have been considering different ways that I might think about this. He briefly discusses art, arguing that to think about art in a means-end sort of way ends up reducing it. This is because things like beauty cannot be reduced to instrumentality.
To me, this was an important point. It made me think about where art gets its value. If we just talk about art in terms of its function, we end up placing value on whatever end it produces. A painting, for example, could be seen as valuable only in terms of the political message it conveys. But if we think about it in this way, the painting in itself is not valuable.
I am inclined to disagree with this: I think that a piece of art just has value and meaning independent of any sort of function. And I think maybe that we should stop trying to give everything a rational purpose, to say it is valuable because we can use it to achieve something we deem worth it.
Of course, art can and often does help us reach some end, whether it be political or otherwise, but I don’t think that this is why art is valuable. It transcends this instrumental rationality. Even if it never yielded any sort of function, even if it was totally useless, art would still be meaningful and worthwhile.
Perhaps then there are other areas of life that we unnecessarily rationalize. Whether or not this is true, I think we need to stop automatically determining something’s value wholly based on its potential usefulness. Things can be valuable even if they don’t have an inherent function and maybe are valuable in virtue of their uselessness.