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What use are the arts?

26 February 2024

From the March 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

At the start of Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets, Clair Wills’s remarkable book about stories and the gaps within them, is a fascinating example of how people read things differently. The frontispiece of the book is Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna Adoring the Sleeping Child (early 1460s). It is set against a story, or perhaps an anecdote: a friend sent Wills a picture of herself with her baby asleep on her lap. Wills characterises the photograph as a Madonna and Child:

But look, [her friend] says, he’s a little bit dead […] Life, death – what’s the difference? say the faces of the Madonnas. Their look speaks of their helplessness as much as of their love. They have given birth to loss, and they cannot now undo that fact.

This anecdote signals many things – not least about the different possibilities of reading. Life and death seem to be antithetical and yet, of course, in the figure of the Christ Child, their proximity is part of the point. It requires a particular imagination to see this and an even more unusual imagination to read such an ambiguity into a photograph of your own child whom you know to be alive. But it also reminds us that art is an act of imagination both in the act of creation and in its reception. To fully appreciate what we see before us requires imaginative leaps. Are we to view a work of art through our own immediate response or through the figures that appear in the picture before us (quite hard to do when the work is entirely abstract – perhaps we are supposed to think of the emotional state of the artist when they made the work)? Are our imaginations ample enough to be open to many viewpoints? Can we piece together different stories or versions as we look at the same object? The ability of art to train our imaginations to be open to multiple readings is, perhaps, one of its most important aspects.

The territory of art’s potential opened up for me as I was at the launch of Missing Persons. I was asked by someone what use such a book might be. While the book is about the ways stories are interpreted and imagined, it tells a single story set against the backdrop of the Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland. The Homes have a fraught history – painful and political. If some ‘use’ could be derived from stories about this chapter of the past, surely that is an unmitigated good? If art can be translated into good, it would be worthy of everyone’s attention. Those Madonnas could reach beyond their religious confines.

I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. There is often clamour about the benefits of the arts – they can seem to offer everything from personal evolution to improvements on a societal scale. Increasingly, the political arguments of a given work are bruited above its aesthetic; by extension, its function is seen in terms of its impact on individual or wider behaviour.

It doesn’t seem to me that art can be pinned into a utile good in this way. As Wills’s anecdote suggests, art contains equivocations, doubt, contradictions. Art, when it works well, doesn’t bolster a moral position. Perhaps its elusiveness is part of its value. But hoping for art to be useful, well, that just seems futile.

From the March 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.