And the wonderful, astonishing truth is that the arts are utterly useless.

Friday, May 27, 2011 § 0

This isn't my writing, and it's not even technically about writing, but it was so wonderful that I really wanted to share it. John Adams, composer, gave the 2011 commencement speech for Julliard. If left to my own devices I might quote the whole thing, but here one part I particularly love. He wrote it for artists, and I hope that he won't mind too hard if I try to grab a few crumbs for writers?

The arts, however, are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult. You can't learn the role of Hamlet (no less write it), you can't play the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata (no less compose it) and you can't hope to move effortlessly through one of Twyla Tharp's ballets without submitting yourself to something that's profoundly difficult, that demands sustained concentration and unyielding devotion. Artists are people who've learned how to surrender themselves to a higher purpose, to something better than their miserable little egos. They've been willing to put their self-esteem in a Cuisinart and let it be chopped and diced and crushed to a pulp. They are the ones who've learned to live with the brutal fact that God didn't dole out talent in fair and equal portions and that the person sitting next to them may only need to practice only half as hard to win the concerto competition.

And the wonderful, astonishing truth is that the arts are utterly useless. You can't eat music or poetry or dance. You can't drive your car on a sonnet it or wear it on your back to shield you from the elements. This "uselessness" is why politicians and other painfully literal-minded people during times of budget crises (which is pretty much all the time now) can't wait to single the arts out for elimination. For them artistic activity is strictly after-school business. They consider that what we do can't honestly be compared to the real business of life, that art is entertainment and ultimately non-essential. They don't realize that what we artists offer is one of the few things that make human life meaningful, that through our skill and our talent and through the way that we share our rich emotional lives we add color and texture and depth and complexity to their lives.

The entire text can -- and should! -- be read here.

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