Dear Dr K,
What is the use of studying art or being an artist? I don’t mean just visual art, but in any form, be it music or dance or fiction writing or theatre or cinema or even philosophy. Poetry is one that I find especially useless. I guess it’s fine if people are just doing it to entertain themselves, but why do some people take it so seriously? Shouldn’t they be doing something more useful with their lives, like being doctors or engineers?
I could not agree with you more. We all have a limited amount of time in this world and we need to contribute as much as we can while we are here. Doctors save lives, engineers build bridges and roads and machines to make our lives easier, and farmers give us food to stay alive. Who exactly do artists think they are helping? Sure, the artists who give us Bollywood and pop music and television soap operas perform an important function in keeping us entertained; without them our general levels of boredom and frustration with life would probably reach the point where we turn murderous and/or suicidal. In that sense, some artists do allow the world to function better. But they are aware of their practical function in society, and perform an economic duty too, being part of the large entertainment industry that provides jobs for thousands of people and allows a few of them to become very rich.
Other artists must obviously serve no purpose to humanity and we might be better off sending them all to the moon so the rest of us can live our lives without ever having to read or write poetry. That will be a huge burden lifted off our backs, a giant drain on society we will no longer have to bear.
In trying to picture this utopia without artists, though, I run into some imaginative roadblocks. If everyone was dedicated to serving some tangible utility, by contributing in some real, measurable way to the thriving of our species on this planet, where does human society go from there? What are doctors saving lives for? So we can give birth to more doctors to save more lives ad infinitum? Why are the engineers building faster and better machines and infrastructure? What are we supposed to do with our lives as they get easier? How much progress can humanity bear? Everything of practical utility is simply a means to some end, and that end is itself a means to achieving something else. At some point, we will begin to wonder what our achievement is. Will our greatest achievement have been merely to survive, and make our lives more convenient?
When an alien race of superior intellect visits us, what will we show them as our crowning accomplishment? We will show them our technology and they will scoff at us. They will tell us, “Do you know about the humans on the moon? They died centuries ago, since they weren’t able to sustain themselves, but you should see the songs they sang, the poems they wrote. They were so beautiful they would make you cry. Now stop trying to impress us with your iPhones.”