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This article is taken from PN Review 97, Volume 20 Number 5, May - June 1994.

The Difficulty of Arrival Raymond Tallis

Paul Valéry captured the essential uselessness of art when he compared prose and poetry in a brilliant analogy. Poetry, he said, is to prose as dancing is to walking. You walk in order to get somewhere, where as you dance to enjoy movement.

People find it very difficult to accept the uselessness of art. But attempts to confer an external use upon it are signally unconvincing. It's obvious that art cannot be justified on the basis of practical value: no - one's survival was threatened by cutting off the Shakespeare supply; Matisse does not solve the problem of finding something to eat; Bach cantatas don't make the roads safer for children. And exposure to art doesn't seem to do much for the morality of nations or of private citizens. After millenia of great art, people behave collectively and individually just as badly as they ever did. If anything has softened the brutish egocentricity of the human animal, it has been technological advance in meeting material want, rather than art. Wellfed individuals in a warm room may be more sensitive to one another's feelings than hungry bodies in the cold air. To quote Brecht: Grub first, then ethics.

My intention in pointing out the practical and moral uselessness of art, is not to diminish its value but to show where its true value lies. Art, of course, gives pleasure. But then so do drinking alcohol and stroking the cat and, it is rumoured, playing football; and ...


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