The Art of Being Useless: Reflections on Music and Football

Written by Scott Taylor

Sometime ago I got to thinking that we as a culture spend too much time focusing on how useful and “purpose-driven” we are.  Maybe this trend has its roots in American capitalism and industry, but that is beside the point.  I have become convinced that our obsession with pragmatism sometimes puts blinders over our eyes and prevents us from knowing the presence of the divine in the world.  Therefore, take a moment as the week comes to its close and indulge yourself.  Together, let’s take a step back and consider some things in life that are all together useless – namely, music and football.

 Starting with music, or rather art in general, consider a selection from Oscar Wilde’s preface to the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

 The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.  Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.  When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.  We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

 Oliver Sacks, acclaimed neurologist, addresses the uselessness of music and art in his 2007 publication, Musicophilia.  In the preface, he offers an interesting scenario wherein aliens visit earth and find humans around the globe occasionally engaging in music (i.e. going to concerts, singing in choirs, singing in churches, etc.).  Upon this observation, the ETs are confounded.  Their confusion stems from the fact that they see no pragmatic value in the habit of listening to and making music.  And they are right.  No matter how well the choir, band and congregation sing on Sunday, it does not fill their stomachs or wallets.  We know this.  So why do it?  We obviously do not use “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” just to ensure that our Sunday services last the allotted hour.  Basically, our hymns, anthems, organs, guitars and, dare I say, sermons, are 100% useless.

 Maybe that is harsh – so let’s talk about football.

 Some of you have heard me speak of the time when I was teaching at a high school in South Carolina and was called to make a proposal to the principal arguing for an increased budget in the music department.  Money was tight; however, not so tight as to prevent the school from building a new football stadium.  This school, like many in the area, has a huge football program that yearly sends students to play for great teams like Clemson or other lesser schools in Columbia, etc.  Now, I love football.  And, I love music.  So, here I am, called to go into a meeting supporting one over the other.  Mentors had supplied me with many figures showing how students involved in music have higher test scores in mathematics and reading comprehension.  I was supposed to read those numbers out to the principal and, just for spice, remind him of how fun it is to sing in the choir. 

 Well, I spent a long time trying to make this argument to myself.  But, in the end I couldn’t.  I told the principal that to justify music’s value on the basis that it might get the school a higher test score would be same as justifying a football program because it might increase students’ hand-eye coordination and dexterity.  If a student gains more fluency in math or reading because of music, that’s great – but it is not how we justify music’s role in the curriculum.  I went on to say that the school owes it to its students to foster and celebrate their talent, creativity and investment not because it might bring a higher test score or revenue, but because that is what the school is there to do.  The importance and beauty of education is fuel the spark of life in children so that it might burn ever brighter than the world tends to allow.  I find it very similar to what I seek in worship every week for each participant.  It may not be the most useful thing to do with my Sunday morning, but it sure is meaningful.

 When we mistake usefulness for meaningfulness, we run the risk of losing our focus.  Art, music, football, fly-fishing, raking leaves, religion, cheesecake and seatbelts on airplanes are all things that I have claimed to be useless at one time or another.  However, in their uselessness, we can engage, admire, and seek out the divine inspiration that transcends pragmatism.  They may be useless, but they sure are meaningful.  Go Tigers!




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