David Bowie on Why It’s Crazy to Make Art–and We Do It Anyway (1998)

Art is use­less, Oscar Wilde declared. Yet faced with, say, a paint­ing by Kandin­sky, film by Mal­ick, or great work by David Bowie, we may feel it “impos­si­ble to escape the impres­sion,” as Sig­mund Freud wrote, “that peo­ple com­mon­ly use false stan­dards of mea­sure­ment — that they seek pow­er, suc­cess and wealth for them­selves and admire them in oth­ers, and that they under­es­ti­mate what is of true val­ue in life.” How­ev­er ambigu­ous­ly, art can move us beyond the self­ish bound­aries of the ego to con­nect with intan­gi­bles beyond ideas of use and use­less­ness.

That expe­ri­ence of con­nect­ed­ness, what Freud called the “ocean­ic,” stim­u­lat­ed by a work of art can mir­ror the sub­lime feel­ings awak­ened by nature. “A work of art is use­less as a flower is use­less,” Wilde clar­i­fied in a let­ter to a per­plexed read­er. “A flower blooms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by look­ing at it. That is all that is to be said about our rela­tions to flow­ers.” It’s an imper­fect anal­o­gy. The flower serves quite anoth­er pur­pose for the bee, and for the plant.  “All of this is I fear very obscure,” Wilde admits.

The point being, from the point of view of bare sur­vival, art makes no sense. “It’s a loony kind of thing to want to do,” says Bowie him­self, in the inter­view clip above from a 1998 appear­ance on The Char­lie Rose Show. “I think the san­er and ratio­nal approach to life is to sur­vive stead­fast­ly and cre­ate a pro­tec­tive home and cre­ate a warm lov­ing envi­ron­ment for one’s fam­i­ly and get food for them. That’s about it. Any­thing else is extra. All cul­ture is extra…. It’s unnec­es­sary and it’s a sign of the irra­tional part of man. We should just be con­tent with pick­ing nuts.”

Why are we not con­tent with pick­ing nuts? Per­haps most of us are. Per­haps “being an artist,” Bowie won­ders “is a sign of a cer­tain kind of dys­func­tion, of social dys­func­tion­al­ism any­way. It’s an extra­or­di­nary thing to do, to express your­self in such… in such rar­i­fied terms.” It’s a Wildean obser­va­tion, but one Bowie does not make to stig­ma­tize indi­vid­u­als. As Rose remarks, he has “always resist­ed the idea that this cre­ativ­i­ty that you have comes from any form of dys­func­tion or… mad­ness.” Per­haps instead it is the mar­ket that is dys­func­tion­al, Bowie sug­gests in a 1996 inter­view, just above, with Rose and Julian Schn­abel.

Art may serve no prac­ti­cal pur­pose in an ordi­nary sense, but it is not only the prove­nance of sin­gu­lar genius­es. “Once it falls into the hands of the pro­le­tari­at,” says Bowie, “that the abil­i­ty to make art is inher­ent in all of us, that demol­ish­es the idea of art and com­merce, and that’s no good for busi­ness.” Wilde also saw art and com­merce in fun­da­men­tal ten­sion. “Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it use­ful to him,” he wrote. “But this has noth­ing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is acci­den­tal. It is a mis­use,” an arti­fi­cial ele­va­tion and enclo­sure, says Bowie, of expres­sions that belong to every­one.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Bowie’s Book­shelf: A New Essay Col­lec­tion on The 100 Books That Changed David Bowie’s Life

When David Bowie Launched His Own Inter­net Ser­vice Provider: The Rise and Fall of BowieNet (1998)

David Bowie Songs Reimag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: Space Odd­i­ty, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Giarc says:

    Why we are not sat­is­fied pick­ing nuts for food? Because humans are bred to want it all. Base ani­mal sen­sa­tions with a need for immor­tal­i­ty. Art is the use­less result of that need. Use­less and as futile as it may be. Or.… maybe there is more to it than meets the mind.

  • Justwaitin says:

    Gia­rc ….you nailed it

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