Art and Purpose

Day 63: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada?  That designer brand, Prada—they’re based here in Milano.  You would think there would be swarms of little devils marching all over this town to get their shopping done.

It’s interesting.  I’ve never really thought about this: what sort of outfits does this Prada-wearing devil really like to wear?  I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff during settimana della modo, the annual city-wide fashion week.  Does he like jean jackets with one arm torn off?  Maybe something frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers?settimana-della-moda-donna-milano-2012

To a fashion-industry outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of these things.  They are “fashion-statements,” but what exactly is being stated?

Usually when we “state” something, we use language to do it.  Regular old language, like English or Italian or what have you.  So there’s obviously something metaphorical about the concept of a “fashion-statement.”  It forms a comparison between fashion and language.

Actually a lot of art forms make analogies to language.  In music, there’s the concept of phrase—a coherent musical thought with a beginning and ending.  Italian musicians take it a step further; the word frase also means “sentence.”  Even painters think of their work as language.  We’re all poet wannabes.  Meanwhile poets themselves talk about poetic images and the musical lyricism of verses.

If all the arts are like language on some level, then they all have similar purposes and similar obstacles to accomplishing those purposes.  So what is the purpose of language?

Well, writers might have some pretty good insight when it comes to a question like that.  Kurt Brindley recently asked a bunch of them why they write.  The answers were pretty interesting.  You should definitely go check it out.

dsc_8770But purpose is a funny thing.  A lot of philosophers these days are skeptical that there really is such a thing as purpose.  Like, back in the day, Aristotle used to explain natural phenomena teleologically, in terms of their purpose.  But today, some people say there really is no purpose behind nature.  A rock falls to the Earth because that’s the way physics works, not because the rock intends or longs to return to its proper place.

But language isn’t a part of natural science.  I think it’s less controversial to argue that a human phenomenon like language has a purpose.  Humans made shoes, and shoes were made for walking.  They’ve even written a song about it…

So here’s my answer to the question: human contact is the end purpose of language.

img_1178Here’s what I mean.  The end purpose of a pen is writing.  If you use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry, that doesn’t mean that crying is the function of the pen.  The pen still functions as a tool of writing.  Crying is only an ulterior effect.

The same is true of language.  Zak, if you write an email to a coworker that results in some restructuring of your company, that doesn’t mean business is the purpose of language.  Language itself still functions merely to bring you in contact with that coworker.  The rest is only incidental to that function.

Some people say that language played a role in evolution.  A species that can use language to cooperate is more fit to survive.  But the survival value of linguistic clarity is only an accidental byproduct of its main function.

Anyway, sorry for just vomiting random thoughts all over the place today.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that human contact is the end purpose of art.  We can evaluate art—even weird art like flamingo jackets—in terms of its potential to fulfill that function.

Until tomorrow,


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Pigeons Rummaging

Day 21: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I got my hair cut on Saturday, and now I have the exact same hair as literally every dude in Milan: long on top, short all around.  I’m using “literally” in the hyperbolic sense of the word.  If my memory of English serves me, this is an acceptable usage, but correct me if I’m wrong.  It’s been a while since I’ve lived in an English-speaking community.  Anyway, the point is, I’m sure not everyone in the city has this hairstyle; I just haven’t seen the guy yet with a different one.

In any case, negotiating the cultural obstacles to getting a haircut is a bigger accomplishment than you might think.  I usually try not to worry too much about what people think of me, but it’s hard for a bum like me not to feel at least a little bit self-conscious about getting his hair cut in the fashion capital of the world.  Anyway, it’s settled now and I can relax.  I’ve disappeared as an individual into the fabric of society—at least as far as hair is concerned.

The other day I found these pigeons rummaging through the leaves in the park.  Their tiny little feet made these exquisitely subtle crinkle sounds as they walked.  It was like a delicately woven web of white noises.  All I had was my cell phone, but I thought I should try to record them even if the sound quality isn’t the best…

In the picture, it’s a little hard to see the pigeons clearly.  They almost kind of blend in with the fallen leaves.  But I think that was an intentional part of the aesthetic they were going for.  It’s a poetics of invisibility.  Their sounds also almost disappear into the fabric of the surrounding sonic environment.  You might not even notice them when you first start listening.  That’s what makes it so interesting.

For a similar effect, take a plastic wrapper and crinkle it next to your ear. Then contemplate the complexity of human identity as you chew on the candy inside.

I was going to include the Tom Lehrer song, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” in this post, but I listened to the lyrics again and realized something: I hate that song.  I mean, Zak, I don’t get emotional about too many things, but poisoning innocent pigeons?  The poor defenseless little creatures, you hardly even notice that they’re there.  No offense, but anyone who thinks that’s funny is sick.

Until tomorrow,