Utility and Beauty: The Strange Bedfellows of Novel Indulgence

By Hanabi S Blackmoor

A house that has been experienced is not an inert box”–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

What is the relationship between utility and beauty? Or more specifically, what is the relationship between economics and art? These questions arise when investigating the current conversations on Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) in the art market. Digital art has been left out because the traditional art markets were based on scarcity. Digital pieces are immaterial, and, in theory, can be redistributed endlessly. Global online marketplaces for print-on-demand services, such as Redbubble and Zazzle, are such examples. The digital piece has so much potential supply that it would be organically impossible for demand to be of the relative height in traditional markets. However, the NFT development, with the authentication and monetisation of non-physical pieces, allows for digital pieces to merge with the traditional into a new age of art (such as Beeple selling a digital piece for £50 million at a Christie’s auction). The relationship between markets and art has been thickening—but what is the nature of such a relationship?

David Hockey’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ is a very complex mixture of utility and art and philosophically notes a trend seen through art used within major corporations today. The painting merely contains traces of human motion—a built house with an empty fold-up chair in front of it, and of course the big splash. Someone had taken the chair out of the house and someone must have made the splash, but where are they? In their absence, a familiar looking image of a swimming pool and idyllic palm trees seem almost haunting. We have a recollection of elements within the painting, yet we cannot deeply emote to any people. Intentionally there is only a mere signal of movement—a splash that is eerily stationary despite our intuition that ‘splashes should fall’. In the world of this painting, we are absorbed by pure utility and expediency so much so that we lose the intimacy in which we derive meaning.

The simplification of graphic design used by major corporations by what is dubbed ‘Corporate Memphis’ is similar. The optimal design to market to any demographic is one of least complication. It then is an effort of utility. So, an individual becomes negative blocks of pastel colour devolved into mere symbolic signs of basic emotions. Art, in essence, becomes twisted—the artist’s technical ability is for a specific end, beauty needs to be as simplified as possible to be ready for consumption at a rapid pace. The nature of what ‘Art’ is then, becomes in question and the standard view of ‘creativity’ within Art is defeated. The non-designers, the one receiving these stripped expressions, correspond by learning to promptly swallow these connotations with the scroll of a thumb. In essence, Bachelard’s quote becomes an archaic utopia. Art (in Bachelard case, architecture) becomes purely for a commercial end, a commercial end wants fast paced consumption, consumption becomes a dominant force, and the connection of ‘art’ to ‘experience’ is severed. This experience is replaced by the expedient. Climate activists, for example, would argue that there is a dissociation from Earth due to the immediate satisfaction necessitated ‘consumerism’: the emersion into reasoned expediency loses the beauty in even our connections to the ground. In accordance, small artistry and their individual creative drives become subsumed into the need to appeal to the masses (namely mass consumption). The biggest example of this would be the multitudinous accusations of major firms for utilising artist work for profit without credit or consent.

This makes the UK government’s choice to tighten funding for the arts all the more worrying. After defunding the Arts, the UK government is now offering £10m extra funding for 16 chosen institutions. This includes the Royal College of Art, and the University of Arts London. Regardless of distinctions in different pedagogical art courses in the range of Art institutions, it is of note that government (on funds from taxpayers) can decide which institutions (without direct taxpayer input) to put at risk. Institutions defunded as a whole will have to tighten their output or seek funding to keep its routine in comparison to those Art institutions chosen by government to thrive. Power then becomes involved once the economic discourse of even teaching the arts rests on the decision of government, which in itself chooses the most expedient avenues. The Arts then becomes at increased risk on becoming dependent on government support, and its creative and technical freedom may be placed in danger. For example, the British Council, receiving grant-in-aid funding from taxpayer money through the UK government, has also been delivering ODA programmes (overseas aid budget) for developing and emerging economies. This ties art, through government finance and budget, into an entity for use within the government’s foreign policy directions. Art is then utilised as a pure expedient means to pursue interests of the government for both economic issues, and wider foreign policy ends.

At current rates, it seems that beauty is increasingly becoming expediency. The nature of the competition, combination, and co-habitation of beauty and utility in current terms has meant one thing—if the two sources are not separated, or more ideally if one isn’t constantly supported and nourished, utility will be stronger and dualistically masquerade as the face of beauty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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