When Art is Meaningless But Essential

Ah. Meaningless art.

That phrase can make those of us who have dedicated our lives to some artistic pursuit cringe.

I recently read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Murakami brings up many fantastic themes in a very complicated plot but uses a simple writing style.

The novel drops a truth bomb in the middle of a conversation. I would like to focus on a very often overlooked function of art.

Page 393:

“Writing things was important, wasn’t it?” Nakata asked.
“Yes, it was. The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is completely meaningless.”

This quote reminds me that most of the time artists create to express themselves; to explore something that is bothering them, maybe.

Art for the Artist

When interpreting a work, we often forget about this. This brings to mind two things. First, maybe we don’t have any right to judge a work of art.

The work could be completely meaningless to everyone except the artist, but it did its job. It helped the artist through something. Who are we to judge whether it is good or not?

Second, if we are to make judgments, write papers, critique, interpret, etc, then we really should take into consideration that the work could be meaningless to us.

This does bring up an interesting point. Should we release such stuff? The answer is certainly that we should.

Sometimes we make art for others. We want to curate a specific experience or draw out a clear meaning. Other times we just use our art to express our own emotions and it doesn’t make sense to others.

But the chance is still there that people will resonate with it. We just need a thicker skin when the criticism comes back. I think Bukowski was a bit like this.

He did his own thing, and people definitely didn’t get it at the time. But he effectively invented a whole new genre of writing that resonated with the next generation.

Art as Beauty

meaningless art

Art can be meaningless in other important ways. You could just make something beautiful.

Look around you. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world today. Making something beautiful might not have some deep intrinsic meaning behind it, but it can still make the world a better place.

The best people working in the romance novel genre do this well. Some romances can have deeper themes to them, but for the most part, they exist as a beautiful escape from everyday life.

Of course, much of art throughout history fits into this category from abstract expressionist paintings to functional pottery.

Non-standard Meaningless Art

This seems to have some interesting ramifications in analyzing math as an art form. I used to be really into this idea.

When the layperson looks at a truly beautiful proof, all they get is something that is meaningless. The mathematician (eh erm, Andrew Wiles), may have been tormented by the concept for years.

The end product that gets spewed out is something that the mathematician “needed” to do. It is a personal thing that doesn’t need to make sense to others.

A lot of professions have this built into it. Something personal and challenging can come out as something beautiful. It can be innovated and breathtaking to those well-versed with the profession.

But to everyone else, it looks ordinary. They can’t see the beauty in it.

This happens to me a lot with books. Since I’ve studied writing for so many years, beautiful prose can hit me hard while another person will read right over it in the novel without noticing anything extraordinary going on.

If you want an example of that, check out some of my posts on prose: Examining Pro’s Prose 1.