Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” And I say, Ozzie, baby, what is “useful”? Art may not mine coal or prevent trouble down t’mill but doesn’t it have a use? Yes, I know, Wilde was responding to Kant’s ideas about the judgment of aesthetics and would say,
Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way…A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower.
He cut himself off there, adding, “All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.” I’d say it’s an infinite one but let’s just let it rest. The usefulness of art is what came to mind when I saw a tiny little graffiti tag on a water meter cover on a sidewalk. The artist, whose name I think is CONS or maybe COMS, has some larger tags on other things–tagging seems to be a real compulsion for this one since I found almost a dozen separate tags within two blocks. What’s interesting to me about these tags is the bare simplicity which really draws attention to the things that have been tagged. Most of the time when I look at a painting I don’t think about the canvas underneath, and unless it’s really elaborate I usually don’t even notice the frame. Canvases are utilitarian; they merely serve as the background for a work of art and while frames are often custom-made they’re, well, just frames. They’re just there to hold a painting up. Right? But when the paint is added to the canvas and placed within the frame the canvas and frame you could say all elements combine: frame, paint, and canvas are all a unit that we call a work of art.
Andy Warhol famously made a mint by reproducing his own paintings. He wasn’t the first to sell reproductions, but he treated mass production as an art in itself, turning everyday objects into art–and turning art into an everyday object. What graffiti sometimes does, when it’s applied to mass produced objects, is make them unique works of art–even if the tags themselves look alike. It can draw our attention to things we might ignore because we think we’ve seen them before.
Seen any graffiti? Email your pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.