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When Art is Meaningless But Essential

meaningless art

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.

0 thoughts on “When Art is Meaningless But Essential”

  1. “… [W]e don’t have any right to judge a work of art” has become for many folks entangled with a narror definition of art associated with the 20th century, but most people do in fact make all kinds of judgments about art. Most of what is called “modern art” is an official art recognized by a status quo (for instance, contemporary museums or university literature departments). The art thus recognized conforms to various expected standards. But in fact the actual things that people produce today are widely diverse as they’ve been in earlier periods of history. I think it’s sad when people feel like they “can’t” judge art. Why not? Why are people so demeure on this topic? They judge everything else. Art is just part of life, so of course we will and should make judgements.

  2. Of course. I guess I didn’t go as far as I should have with my alternative to not being able to judge art. I guess, “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” should have been elaborated upon.
    For the most part I am just warning that far too often people make judgments that are uninformed. Mostly the uniformed is due to pulling it out of context. What was up with all the blue paintings by Picasso. That seems kind of boring. Or lets put it in context. Maybe the set of blue paintings were symbolic of his depression. I don’t see what the big deal about Joyce’s Ulysses is. Or lets put it in context and see all the conventions that he went against. All the topics that were brought up that were taboo.
    Overall, I just get frustrated when things are judged out of context. My personal opinion is that art is meaningless without its context.

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  4. Hello
    I just happened to stumble upon this article while googling “art is meaningless”. And I am coincidentally also reading Kafka on the Shore at the moment. I think your post made a lot of sense. Sometimes when I draw something and people ask me to explain it I just… don’t know what to tell them. Most of the time when I explain myself I’ll end up sounding lame and making my work lose its soul and credibility. So… Yep. I get what you mean.


    I completely understand the philosophy. Art being EVERYTHING and at any level EVERYTHING meaningless; knowing philosophy is at the vulnerability of those who are not as comprehensive of themselves.

  6. We have lost our ability to reason and think for ourselves, there is trivial, meaningless and bad art out there and people feel they don’t have a right sot say anything. People have the right to judge bad art and they should speak out. In the past years irrelevant bad paintings have been sold for really high prices. Because of a couple of art dealers in New York that created this artificial way of looking at art. The more art produced the more money they made, who cares about quality.

  7. dear georgia rondos,
    interesting, the art dealers have all the responsibilitly for our taste and judgment of art? i think many people dont get modern art because they dont get the philosophy about it.
    if everything has been depicted in the world, films, photography..etc. than the question is where does that leave art? what are artists to paint about? and even more significantly is what happens inside you when you see NOTHING? art is not explaining itself anymore, the viewer has to face different subjects than just finding something beautiful because it looks nice.

  8. Milan Kundera got it precisely: Kitsch is the result of ‘creative’ people failing to recognize that they can produce $#!+. Even if great artists get away with breaking the rules, there are limits of taste. Above all they must avoid offering triviality as profundity.

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