Art is the science of uselessness

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God’s Crooked Lines

I owe the title of my website to no other than Don Torcuato Luca de Tena. This Spanish journalist and author wrote its most acclaimed novel “Los Renglones Torcidos de Dios” (English: God’s Crooked Lines) in 1979. It narrates the story of detective Alice Gould during her confinement in a psychiatric hospital, where she is allegedly investigating a mysterious crime.

In the book, Luca de Tena expresses his particular views on art. In a nutshell, art is for him the science of uselessness, as it is detached from the primary biological needs of human beings. This is not meant as a scorn but as a metric of its value; the more elevated art is, the more useless it gets with respect to our animal necessities.

As an engineer, I am used to thinking along such terms as usefulness/uselessness, accuracy, requirement and the like. This is in deep conflict with many of my personal interests (read music and art in general), which according to don Torcuato are not only useless, but they can only become greater the more useless they are.

On the other hand, I also enjoy maths and coding. And through maths and code one can model, generate, render, manipulate, process futile streams of audio samples, or pixels; bits and bits of uselessness so rigorously analyzed that it becomes incredibly useful again.

Therefore, you may not wonder that most of my projects here, while heavily focused on mathematics and programming, have also some arty touch. Moreover, these creations are quite often useless in terms of my job, so that I cannot sell them to any colleague or boss. This is what has pushed me to publish them on a personal website. Now that they are accessible to everyone, I am no longer the one that has to deem them useful or useless; I will let you take that role instead.

Both Luca de Tena and (his) God’s Crooked Lines seem to be quite unknown outside the Spanish-speaking world. This is a pity, as the discussed fragment of the book, is only available in Spanish. The same goes for any further references.

Let me nevertheless reproduce the original excerpt my point is based on, followed by my own translation to English (which I hope it conveys the original message):

Excerpt from the book

-¿Qué piensa usted de las artes?

-El arte es la ciencia de lo inútil.

-¿Quiere decir que desprecia a las artes, que las considera algo trivial, y a quienes las practican gentes desocupadas que no tienen otra cosa mejor que hacer?

-¡Nada de eso, doctor! ¡Considero que el arte es tanto más sublime como mayor es su inutilidad!

-Explíquese mejor.

-El hombre es el único animal que se crea necesidades que nada tienen que ver con la subsistencia del individuo y con la reproducción de la especie. No le basta comer para alimentarse, sino que condimenta los alimentos, de modo que añadan placer a la satisfacción de su necesidad. No le basta vestirse para abrigarse, sino que añade, a esta función tan elemental, la exigencia de confeccionar su ropa con determinadas formas y colores. No se contenta con cobijarse, sino que construye edificios con líneas armoniosas y caprichosas que exceden de su necesidad. ¿Hay algo más inútil que la corbata que lleva usted puesta?. Pues bien, todo eso que está inútilmente añadido a la pura necesidad…. ¡ya es arte!

La gastronomía, la llamada hoy ‘alta costura’ y la decoración son las primeras artes creadas por nuestra especie, porque representan los excesos inútiles añadidos a las necesidades primarias de comer, abrigarse y guarecerse.

-Prosiga, me tiene absolutamente fascinado…

-En el momento mismo en el que el espíritu creador del hombre se despegó incluso de la necesidad primaria para producir sus lucubraciones, nacieron las grandes Artes….

La danza es… ¿Cómo explicarme? Una… Una… ¡Una mímica sublimada!, tal vez la danza sea anterior al lenguaje y tuviera en sus orígenes una intención práctica: con carga erótica, reverencial o religiosa. Yo no estaba allí y no sé que intencionalidad tenía. Pero no hay duda de que encerraba un propósito encaminado a la consecución de un fin…

(…)

La Pintura pertenece a un género superior. ¡Es más inútil todavía! La distancia entre lo necesario y lo que no sirve para nada se hace tan grande, que la considero entre las primeras de las Artes Mayores.

-¿Cómo juzga la Poesía?

-Paralela en méritos a la Pintura, aunque un tanto más inútil todavía. (…)

Queda, por último, la Música. ¿Qué mayor inutilidad que unir unos ruidos con otros que no expresan directamente nada y que pueden ser interpretados de mil maneras distintas según el estado de ánimo?, ¿A quién alimenta eso?, ¿A quién abriga?, ¿A quién cobija? ¡A nadie! La música es la más inútil, biológicamente hablando, de todas las Artes y, por ello, por su pavorosa y radical inutilidad, es la más grande de todas ellas; la menos irracional, la más intelectual, la más espiritual, la más humana.

English translation

-What do you think about art?

-Art is the science of uselessness.

-Are you implying that you despise the arts, that you consider them something trivial and you regard their practitioners as unoccupied people who do not have anything better to do?

-Not at all, my dear doctor! I believe art becomes more sublime the more useless it is.

-Please explain yourself.

-Man is the only animal who creates necessities that do not have anything to do with the subsistence of the individual or the reproduction of the species. Eating is not enough for him to nourish himself, but he seasons his nourishment in order to add pleasure to the satisfaction of his need. Clothing is not enough to protect him from cold, but he must add, on top of this elemental function, the requirement of clothes with particular shapes and colors. Shelter does not content him, for he must construct buildings with harmonious and fanciful lines that exceed his need. Is there anything more useless than the tie you are wearing right now? Well, all these useless addenda on top of pure necessity… is indeed art!

Gastronomy, the so-called haute couture and decoration are the first arts our species created, as they display the useless excesses to the primary necessities of eating, protection and shelter.

-Continue please, I am truly fascinated…

-The very same moment when the creative spirit of men even detached itself from the primary necessity that held its lucubrations, that is when the great Arts were born.

Dance is… How can I explain? Nothing but… Sublimed mimic! Perhaps dance is even older than speech, and it originally had some practical intention; it might have had some erotic, reverential or religious charge. I was not there and I ignore its true intentionality. But no doubt it involved some purpose leading to the achievement of an aim…

(…)

Painting belongs to a superior stage. It is still more useless! The distance between what is needed and what is of no use grows so long that I consider it among the first of the Great Arts.

-How do you deem Poetry?

-Its merit is parallel to that of Painting, yet somewhat more useless. (…)

There is finally only Music left. What can be more useless than joining noise to some other noises, which directly lack any meaning while they are open to a thousand different interpretations according to one’s mood? Who can this nourish? Who will this protect? Who should this shelter? No one! Music is the most useless, biologically speaking, among all Arts and, as a result of its terrifying radical uselessness, it is the greatest among them; the least irrational, the most intellectual, the most spiritual, the most human.

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