I Hope Your Art Is Useless

Jane Claudio is a folk-singer-turned-pop-artist hailing from Nashville, TN. She can typically be found cooking Thai food or making super hot fire music with her super hot fire husband, Jeremy. Read more blogs and listen to new tunes at www.janemusicofficial.com.

What is the responsibility of an artist in today’s society? That’s the question I was asked to answer as a guest writer on this blog, and it’s a question that used to take up a lot of my time. The idea of responsibility as an artist used to be very weighty for me. I held this sobering sense of duty; that with so many eyes and ears listening, I had to know exactly what I wanted to say before I started.

During that time, I summed it like this: It’s my responsibility to tell the truth. I believed that every song had to have a beginning, middle, and end. To avoid any confusion, every piece that I shared with the world had to hold all the components of the story. Often I over-lyricized to make sure I spelled out all the correct conclusions. Every song needed a clear message, a goal post, a thesis statement. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the heaviness was suffocating my creativity.

I’ll just come right out and say it: your art doesn’t have to have a message. In fact, if your art essentially meaningless, it might be a sign that you’re doing it right. You’ll have to give me some time to explain.

I told a friend of mine once that I thought poetry was useless. He opened up a book nearby and read me a poem about blackberries. The author described how the blackberry gives itself gently, but only when it is ready; and how the juice leaves its footprints on your fingertips. There was the sound of the squishing tiny pods on your tongue, and of the juice dripping off your chin in the sun, two pages’ worth. Then my friend asked me, “why didn’t he just say, ‘I like eating blackberries?’” That is the moment when I started to love poetry.

It is nonsense, no doubt, to write two pages about the way a blackberry feels in your mouth. But isn’t nonsense like that exactly what colors our world? G.K. Chesterton says that a little nonsense is good for the soul, and I agree. I’m not making the case that art shouldn’t have a message. Rather, I’m releasing you from the restrictive mindset that everything you create has to be profound and purposeful. If you have a message you’d like to share through your work, do it passionately. But don’t ever forget that creating should be out of joy, not duty.

“Tell them, my dear, that if eyes are made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this line as part of a poem about contemplating the purpose of a flower. And after finding no function for it at all, he shrugs and concludes that it’s purpose is beauty and nothing else. There are some wonderful things on earth that are essentially meaningless, like as the song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and the giant silver bean in Chicago. If God himself made flowers and watercolor sunsets and fireflies, which are completely unnecessary, I would say that we have permission to do the same.    

So let’s worry less about tailoring messages and more about decorating the universe. That is the truest joy and the greatest purpose of the artist. We are the writers of the wedding songs and the painters of the murals—and every mural doesn’t need a message. Sometimes it’s only there to shine vibrant red instead of gray in a wounded city. Don’t let the pressure to be profound keep you from creating. The fact that you are leaving something beautiful behind you is enough. You are urgently needed to reveal the joy hidden underneath the world’s turmoil. In this age, let’s be the brave ones to call out the beauty and put a spotlight on the bliss.

It the artist’s greatest purpose.