Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Pretty Useful

In "The Beauty of Life" (1880), William Morris names his golden rule: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." This, to trump the trend, growing fast in his time, of separating use from beauty, such that the former - use - was gradually relinquished, to the demand of industry that the end product be realized as efficiently as possible and the demand of capital that the end product be replaceable as infinitely as possible, and the latter - beauty - was gradually isolated, in frames, on walls, in museums, among the privileged, where its remove from use was its defining feature. In this way, the set of objects and field of practice that emerged as the province of beauty - that is, art - came to be understood as that set of objects and field of practice outside of the merciless proliferation and pursuit of ends that came to dominate everywhere else. Only art - broadly understood as that area of human interest in which experiment, invention, originality, and freedom reign - was thought to resist the subordination of means to ends and ends to profit that was, already in Morris's time, coming to define human life in all other respects.

But it was precisely this seeming promise of art that, given its provenance, given its having been constituted by overspill from the paring down of means and leveling out of ends so necessary to the flourishing of industrialized capital, gave Morris pause: for, the other side of the enjoyment of objects and events free of the pursuit of ends, was the utter subjection to the pursuit of ends that prevails in every other sphere. More than this, the elevation of those objects and events free of the pursuit of ends, as the greatest site of resistance to utter subjection to given ends, slowly but surely took from the appeal and the practice of those other possibilities for resistance, which would undercut the dominance of given ends, not with a total abandonment of purposefulness, but with a refusal of anything other than a purposefulness for which purpose is not the only determining factor, a purposefulness for which process is also significant, a purposefulness for which ends and means are not separate but rather so completely involved with one another that the distinction between use and beauty, between efficiency and pleasure, does not arise. It is because we visit the local art gallery during our weekends, because we hang prints of our favourite paintings on our walls, that we have lost the talent and the requirement for receiving pleasure from weekday life or from the walls themselves. Life is stripped bare, with just a few pretty useless things cobbled together and kept in one place for those still minded to have a look at them.

But there is worse, worse even than the demise of lifestyle that Morris regretted. For art does not operate only as the safety valve for a lingering requirement for the kind of aesthetic pleasure no longer available from the things one sees and does in general. Or, as this safety valve, through which the pressure of engaging in the business of life is relieved, there flows out much much more than one might have imagined necessary: the desire for beauty is given an outlet in the eschewal of purpose that is art, but the practice at eschewing purpose that art provides has so corrupting an effect that we have become accustomed to doing without purpose even in matters purposeful, to performing meaningless jobs, to buying things that don't work well or at all, to wearing clothes that do not keep us warm or make us look good, to engaging with technology that will not be usable next year for reasons of fashion or of "progress." In other words, the practice art gives us, at pleasure in the absence of purpose, is perfect preparation for that essential aspect of capital and its demand for profit and growth: obsolescence.

Art must begin at home, as Morris warned, if any of this is to be remedied. We must find, in the things we see and use and make and do, when we are oriented towards even our most basic ends, a kind of pleasure that is not accounted for merely by the attainment of those ends (as if the pleasure would necessarily be increased if the ends were attained as quickly and as frequently as possible). But, so far are we from having, any more, the language with which even to describe what this might involve, we are driven to resort to negative description, in this case to the V&A's "pretty useful" tools, which - surprising, given the nature of the objects - represent the perfect fruition of the separation of use from beauty by which we are every minute so degraded. In this case, no need even for obsolescence: here we have almost quintessentially useful objects made beautiful precisely at the expense of their use. One strike at a nail, and a chip will come in Morris's "Anemone" print; another strike, another chip, in a perfect performance of use as anathema to beauty. No greater insult to the memory of Morris could be devised; no clearer statement of the now almost total absence of pleasure in the useful; no more striking summary of the extent to which the arts that ought to begin at home in fact suck out the life from home and everywhere else.

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