Art, Religion and the Value of Uselessness

Everybody has heard that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That bit of wisdom (it really is wise) is usually presented as an “old Chinese saying.” The Chinese themselves attribute it to Lao Tzu, venerated as the founder of Taoism (though not as a religion). His exact dates are not known, but he was an older, sixth-century B.C. contemporary of Confucius.

I mention him because he had a disciple, Chuang Tzu, who became illustrious in his own right, somewhat like Plato relative to Socrates in the history of Western philosophy. Chuang Tzu is best remembered for what he had to say about uselessness. He was always talking about it.

One day when speaking on the subject, he said, “If you have no appreciation for what has no use, you cannot begin to talk about what can be used.”

Somebody on the scene asked him to elucidate. He explained (I am abbreviating): “Look at where you stand. You are surrounded by the entire, vast Earth, but all that is useful to you for standing is the few inches under your feet. All the rest is useless. But imagine if all the rest fell away. How long could you stand where you are before you fell into the abyss?”

Now, there is an old American saying we never attribute to anyone: “Time is money>.” The meaning of this saying is as clear as that of Lao Tzu’s about taking a first step: If you value money, and especially if you value it more than anything else, any time spent doing something besides making more of it is time wasted. The “something,” whatever it may be, is useless to making money. I shall liken it here to the ground not needed for standing in Chuang Tzu’s explanation of his saying.

When businessmen and others are hailed by modern society for being especially “successful,” which is to say successful at making money, it amounts to recognition of their “wasting” as little time as possible. In fact, the real giants of money-making are often known never to take time “off” except for what may be necessary, according to experts, to keep making more. For instance, they will spend time running on a treadmill because medical doctors say physical exercise is needed for the sake of their health. Similarly they may spend some time watching television. That will be by way of the “relaxation” psychologists say is necessary for mental or emotional stability.

If only because it is so seldom recommended by anyone seen by modern society as having the authority to make recommendations, something the “successful” (and those wishing to be like them) are liable to regard as a total waste (or totally useless ground) would be time spent with art — reading poetry, reading novels, listening to serious music, looking at paintings. Even if it is acknowledged in a formal way that art probably has some kind of importance, time spent with it would not even count as “relaxation” since art that really is worth anyone’s time requires effort. (There is nothing easy, for instance, in taking in all that Shakespeare can convey in any one of his plays as compared, say, to an installment of Grey’s Anatomy. )

It is not merely the notably “successful” who will spend little or no time with art. My own bank account would be a lot bigger than it is if I had a thousand dollars for every occasion in the past ten years that I heard some ordinary person say, “I’d like to read more, but I just don’t have the time.” (“Visit a museum,” “attend a concert” or “see a play” can be substituted for “read more.”) By ordinary person I mean anyone who is successful only in the sense that he and his wife manage well enough to meet their financial obligations to be counted among the working middle class at some level. And it’s true, if the commute that now daily faces most such persons is added to the hours they spend at their workplace, they won’t have much time for anything else, not even on the weekend. When it arrives, the kids have to be taken to soccer practice or swimming lessons, and of course it’s the only opportunity to get to the mall. Folks have to get to the mall. It wouldn’t make much sense, as far as they’re concerned, to spend most of the week at a job to earn money and then not have the things money will buy, though having the things necessarily will entail more time spent at the job in order to pay for all they will wind up wanting. (If folks understood that the true measure of abundance is not what one possesses but what one can enjoy, they could save some time by visiting the mall less often.)

In any event, it is too bad for everyone, and for remaining Christians in particular, that more time isn’t saved to “waste” on art.

In terms of everyone, imagine if all the useless world of art suddenly fell away, leaving nothing on which society could stand except the bit of ground where money is made. Many standing on that bit might never have much appreciation for the world of art, but what if it weren’t there? Would anyone fall into an abyss? In fact, many do. We have all heard of some businessman judged to be especially “successful” who drops dead at age 53 without having lived. He was going to do that, he thought, as soon as he retired. (No, time spent with great art cannot exactly be equated with living, but it will certainly make a life richer.)

As for why it is desirable for Christians in particular to spend more time with art than many of them do, it is on account of their final end. After all, our eternity ultimately is determined by how we spend our time.

In what ways may we spend it? Obviously it can all be spent on making money, but if the eternity we want is one we spend with God, which is to say in Heaven, among the things we do certainly will be whatever will draw us closer to Him while we are still on earth. Such things, beginning with prayer and meditation, will tend to be quite useless to the making of money.

Now, anybody who does not pray, which is to talk to God, simply is not a Christian. Anybody who wants to be a better Christian will meditate, which is to listen to Him. What is being contended here is that besides prayer and meditation, to spend time with art is a way to draw closer to God. Why?

It is because of what art is, and what it will do. It is the application of skill (at drawing or with words, for instance) and intellectual ability to the production of something which will be, one way or another, beautiful or (in the case of literary production especially) will communicate wisdom as well as possibly be beautiful. Beauty and wisdom are not negligible qualities in a world increasingly filled with ugliness and given to nonsense. They are good ends in themselves. An hour spent beholding the one or acquiring the other justifies itself. However, when the art is of a high order, especially in literature, music and the plastic arts, but also even in the design of the utilitarian (for example, buildings used to house us and furnishings within them) it will invite us into contemplation. We may begin by contemplating the thing itself (Of what material is this? How did the artist accomplish this effect?), but we are also likely to move on to contemplating its meaning (What does this signify? What is the significance to me?). Such contemplation, even if it is not “religious,” is extremely useful to us as Christians and in terms of our final end.

That is because what we think, how we fill our mind, determines the state of our being. Everything we do, all our activities, not simply the job or work we do to make a living, but what we read (Dan Brown or Fyodor Dostoyevsky?), the tv programs and films we watch and pictures at which we look (reruns of Seinfeld or The Queen ? kitsch or Caravaggio?), the music to which we listen (MTV or The Goldberg Variations ?), what we talk about with friends (in real conversation or mere gossip?), even the friends we choose — all of it goes to make us the persons we become. Think trashy thoughts and you won’t have to live in a trailer park to become trash. Think all the time about money and the stuff you can buy if you have more and you may be “religious” in the sense of attending Mass every Sunday, but you will still be a materialist. In other words, a half-hour a day spent in prayer and meditation, if we take that much time for them, won’t do us as much good as it ought — won’t keep us turned toward God — if most of the rest of our time is spent forming an entirely different sort of consciousness. That is what St. Paul was getting at when he said, “Pray without ceasing.”

Another way of putting this: spirit follows mind. In more poetic terms: Where the mind is the heart will follow. “The important thing” — I am quoting the great French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery — “is to strive toward a good that is not immediately visible. That good is not the concern of the mind, but of the spirit.”

Is there anything about art, apart from its inviting us into contemplation, that enables it to lead us toward God? Though it is conventional to do so, I am always nervous about using the word create in relation to art since, properly speaking, only God creates anything, but we might consider that in addition to whatever else may be said of it, men may be distinguished from all other of God’s creatures by the fact we make art. This making, involving as it does will and intelligence as men uniquely exercise them, must surely reflect our creation by Him in His image. That is, a sunset is wondrous, but so is a great painting of one since it will distill, so to speak, the essence of all sunsets; and such a painting could not be made except by a man, and he could not make it except that he is “painted” by and like God. If that is so, if art manifests our likeness to God, may it not be seen as a portal to the divine?

To sum up: If what we chiefly keep in mind is money and what is necessary to make it, the making will become our heart’s desire. Our interior, spiritual resources will be bent toward that end. It is better, if we want to get to Heaven, to keep our mind turned toward God. We do that most immediately in prayer and meditation, but no one can pray and meditate all the time. Even in the most ideal circumstances, like in a monastery, it is humanly impossible. However, when we are not praying or meditating, or working, we can spend more time with art than with much that takes less effort and than many persons do. The virtue of doing so is that through what we see, or hear in music or read on a page before us, our mind will be led to the invisible, and that will predispose us to communion with the Highest Invisible Good, God. Because it will, we see that there is nothing “useless” about art at all, no more than there is to all the world beyond the bit of ground on which we stand.

A final word: Nothing said here should be construed as contempt for money, or for persons who make more of it than a poor writer ever will. However, it is possible, without condescension, to feel sorrow, and fear, for persons who lack a sense of the importance of what has here been called “useless.” They need to get some balance in their lives, lest they fall into an abyss.