Use and Uselessness
My mind drifted as I lay awake in the early morning. I thought of the stars shining brightly outside and listened to the beeps of semis echoing from the factories across town. An idea, perhaps born from the juxtaposition of stars and semis, was conceived in my mind: “use and uselessness.”
This idea is not a new juxtaposition. Function and form. Utility and beauty. Use and uselessness. Beauty is, in a sense, useless. What does it matter if my roof has ornate eaves, so long as it shelters me from the weather? Why should I care if my shoes look classy, so long as they keep my feet in and the rest of the world out? What does it matter if my pocket linings are burgundy, orange, pea green, teal, or beige, so long as they don’t develop holes? Yet, I submit that beauty is essential to being human and to all human things. I hold that function is best served when form is at its best. As proof, I give you a flower.
What is more useless than this? It’s fragile. It’s delicate. It will die quickly and fade away forever. You can’t make anything out of it but an arrangement of flowers, which is good for nothing but looking at.
Yet at the same time, it’s immensely useful. It’s sweet nectar will become honey (which is a wonderful thing), (especially wonderful if one can’t eat processed sugar…), (and is really so awesome). Not only that, but flowers provide essential food for pollinators. They are part of the system which gives us apples and peaches and okra and onions and every other plant which is so humble it relies on insects to reproduce.
Now here is the interesting part. You cannot separate the flower’s beauty from its practicality. It is precisely its beauty that attracts the bees and makes it useful, in a practical sense. If you search the natural world you will find this same incredible melding of form and function all over. Trees’ leaves are pleasant–in my opinion–in part because they are flat and green. These same qualities make them great air filters and energy converters (changing solar energy to chemical energy, which is stored in the tree and which the rest of the environment can then use). The human body has optimal muscle placement and shape–resulting in ease of movement and a good center of gravity–but also in the lines and curves we find so appealing. From these and countless other examples, it seems that nature likes form and function balanced.
It is a principle of nature that form and function ought to be balanced. Therefore, we humans, as part of the natural world, are more human when we observe this balance. Yet, as a society, we are continually emphasizing function over form.
Consider these two pictures:
The old phone is hardly a pinnacle of aesthetics, yet it is almost opulent compared to the new one. It at least richer colors and a variety of strong curves and shapes. The new phone is a study in aesthetic minimalism. It could scarcely have less color and its subtle shapes and curves can hardly hold one’s attention. Really. Try looking at the new phone for a solid minute. Then the old one for a minute. Notice a difference? Is one more appealing?
This aesthetic minimalism is everywhere: cars, electronics, architecture, appliances, clothing… It didn’t used to be so. I see a large interest, especially in my generation, in things that are “vintage.” There is something about older things that we find appealing. I believe they have a fuller sense of beauty, something that has been lost.
Why, as a society, do we find the aesthetically minimal beautiful? It’s because of our emphasis on productivity, efficiency, and the bottom-line. Much is governed by spreadsheets and the desire to maximize profit. There is no time for beauty.
I find all this emphasis on function to be dehumanizing. I mean this quite literally. I feel more human and alive out in nature or in some old, old, city in Italy than I do in a store, office, or any typical American home. I miss what once was and want to recapture the balance between beauty and use which is so important to being human. There’s no reason for our society to be so practical minded. Man does not live on money alone.
I’ll probably be reflecting on this a lot in future posts.