What’s the use of that?: an apology on a musical career

by Tom Ingram

I am strongly of the opinion that nothing but superlative excellence in art can excuse a man or woman for being an artist at all. It is not a light thing in a world of drudgery for any citizen to say, “I am not going to do what you others must: I am going to do what I like.” I think we are entitled to reply, “Then we shall expect you to do it devilish well, my friend, if we are not to treat you as a rogue and a vagabond.”

—George Bernard Shaw, The Nation, 22 June 1918

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

—Deuteronomy 8:3

Those of us who attempt to enter artistic fields professionally will sooner or later be forced to defend our choice. At an age where all questions about careers and goals sound like power plays or veiled criticism, we are asked to justify ourselves to Philistine relatives and authorities far more often than our colleagues in the sciences, in skilled trades, or in business. Tactically, the best response is to deflect and change the subject. But no matter how deftly we avoid answering the question “What’s the use of that?”, it hangs in the air, ringing in our ears, forcing us to do soul-searching that no one else is ever made to do.

We will leave aside questions of the practicality of entering, e.g., the music business. One certainly hopes that all music students have some kind of plan as to how they intend to make a living. But so much depends on individual cases—where you live, how competitive things are there, how good you are, etc.—that no really general answer to these objections is possible. I propose to answer the objection that is always implied but rarely given voice, namely: just who do you think you are, spending your life on something useless in this world of drudgery?

You will probably not notice the unfair thing about this question: it is only people in artistic fields and in certain segments of the humanities that are ever asked it. When you get right down to it, almost no one can give a good account of himself. But plumbers are never asked to. We take it as given that plumbers perform a valuable task, that there is no presumption involved in deciding to be a plumber. But is there any sound reason for this? A plumber may ask, “Why perform symphonies?”, but does he have any satisfying answer to the question, “Why fix toilets?”?

“We’ve got to shit somewhere.” Yes, but why there? “It’s more hygienic.” Why is hygiene a good thing to have? “It improves public health” or, if the plumber has a philosophic bent, “Because hygiene is a way of showing respect to others.” Right, but why care if people live or die? We have established, perhaps, that toilets are pleasant things to have, but not that they are necessary. Indeed, we lived for thousands of years before indoor plumbing was invented and managed all right.

The plumber, if he hasn’t already, will point out that I’m playing games with him and I know damn well what he means. And I do. We could restate his point in a more sophisticated form: plumbing is more relevant to everyday survival than music. If we were to eliminate a city’s concert halls, things would (at least at first) go on much as they had been, whereas the removal of all its toilets would be disastrous. This much is true. But imagine a society that has no music, no literature save for news reports and technical writing, no architecture but the most barren “make sure it doesn’t fall over” sort. This “civilization” without art does not deserve the name. Despair will set in, and gradually other fields of knowledge will decline, too. The society is doomed. When the whole sordid affair finally ends, it will be promptly forgotten because it has nothing to offer posterity. Then it scarcely matters whether they lived well.

If I may quote Bernard Shaw again, “Asceticism will not save us, for the conclusive reason that we are not ascetics.” Humans are by definition not creatures of mere survival. What makes us human is our ability to escape from the present moment and pursue things that are higher than (and sometimes opposed to) immediate practicality: things without which, paradoxically, we would not last long before sliding back into death or something very like it. Love. Religion and ritual (in whatever form you wish to take them). Reverence for the dead. Learning. And, yes, art.

The plumber is right: toilets hold society together. Without them we would be less hygienic—both less safe and less respectful. Plumbing is an honourable profession. But the arts are what give us a society worth holding together. And it is not enough to grudgingly tolerate one or two artists and send the rest off to become welders. The arts require a broad and intricately interconnected establishment in order to flourish, and this establishment needs obscure specialist treatises that will never be read by the public as much as it needs Beethoven or Shakespeare. It is a dense web, and you cannot simply pick out the nodes you like and toss out the rest.

My goal is to become, in my own small way, a part of that web. You may argue that this goal is impractical, or that it is impractical for me specifically, but you cannot object to it on moral grounds because it fails to fit into a poorly thought out and carefully circumscribed definition of usefulness. We need plumbers, it’s true. We also need janitors, physicists, fitness trainers, historians, doctors, and people to put on regular, public performances of Beethoven symphonies.