“All art is rather useless,” dapper dandy and master of witticisms Oscar Wilde once quipped. Art might startle and surprise, astound and astonish but it has no practical purpose. After all, a play can’t fold the laundry, a poem can’t fix a flat tire, a painting can’t change your motor oil. Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Cypresses” can’t end global warming; Cezanne’s apples and oranges— no matter how charming— can’t cure cancer or rebuild coral. So why bother to scribble a sonnet or compose a villanelle?
According to Kurt Vonnegut, postmodern genius behind such masterpieces of counterculture as Slaughterhouse Five and sage behind some of the wisest writing advice, we should paint and write and act and sing and dance and draw because making art helps us better understand ourselves and the world. Will our still life save the rain forest? Will our exhibit of black-and-white photographs find a more sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels? No, but trying to capture something will stretch our understanding and deepen our appreciation of whatever we write and draw. Or as Brenda Ueland once wrote, “By painting the sky, Van Gogh was really able to see it and adore it better than if he had just looked at it. In the same way…you will never know what your husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try to write his story.”
As sensible adults, we want results. If we spend all day at our desk, we want something to show for our work; if we devote years to writing a novel, it better win the Pulitzer Prize and become a New York Times bestseller; if we go through the trouble of painting a Renoir blue sky, it better hang in the Louvre. What’s the point of dedicating untold hours to writing or painting if it never earns us acclaim? if it never sells and increases our net worth?
It’s so important to make art because it reconnects us to our inner child. Unlike too-serious, too-solemn adults who believe we are what we accomplish, children understand there is more to the day than a to-do list. Children don’t make mud pies or build sandcastles or construct bed sheet fortresses because they want to be the envy of their friends or see their essay published. They don’t care if their crayon drawing is hung proudly on the fridge or is forgotten in a junk drawer. They create because it brings them joy. For them, making art is its own reward.
Vonnegut believes we can all learn from children. Even if we write and never publish a word, even if— like Van Gogh— we sketch thousands of paintings only to die tragically unknown, no time is wasted. We’re always better for having created.
With his zany wit and exuberant, playful love of life, Vonnegut implores a group of Xavier High School students to live creatively. In this lovely letter, featured in the altogether inspiring Letters of Note: Volume 2, he writes:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!