Alan Watts, Future of Communication
"And this, then, is why music — of all the arts — is the most meaningless art. After all, music is a major industry in the United States. The money invested in orchestras, in operas, in the recording business is fantastic. It’s — horse racing is a very great industry, but music, I think, probably absorbs more millions than horse racing. And you could make a case that this was a complete dissipation. It solves no useful purpose, it doesn’t help anyone to survive, it is a noise; meaningless noise, endless meaningless noise going down the drain. And all these energies of orchestras, or all the power of electronics that delivers this, is total waste! And people get hooked on it. They get the thing called chorditis, which is addiction to harmonics. And they have to have this repeated day after day. Some people get up in the morning and they can’t function until they’ve had cup of coffee. But many more people get up in the morning and can’t function until they turned on the radio and got some music.
“And what would you say, then, of a culture which took this standpoint: music not allowed. Music is a diversion from reality. You know? That kind of awful, utilitarian attitude—but really, one of the basic things, you see, that we live for. What makes it worth surviving and going on is there can be such a thing as music, there can be dancing. In other words, that we can do things that are absolutely irrelevant so far as mere survival is concerned. Now, we have the proverb that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ Dull for work. And people who play — justifying their play by making it a means to that end — those people never play. Because you don’t really play until you get so absorbed in the music — or the dancing, or the whatever you’re making; the part of doing, the calligraphy — until you get so absorbed in that there is no reason for it other than what you’re doing. The sheer delight of that. Then — because you are absorbed in something for which there is no ulterior motive, and which is pure play — this, by way of a byproduct, produces sanity. In other words, if you play in order to be healthy, in order to be sane, you’re not playing. But if you play just to play, then, as a byproduct, as something you couldn’t aim at directly, you are sane.
“And so a culture which allows for this, which allows for this sort of goofing, is a healthy culture. This is not the culture that we live in, because it is extremely anxious about play. Everybody, when they play, they have to find an excuse for it. They say, ‘Well, this is culture.’ You try and persuade the city of San Francisco to support its opera. What sort of propaganda do you have to use? You can’t say, ‘We should have a good opera house because we just like going to be opera.’ You say, ‘This improves the city’s image.’ After all, they have it in New York.
“And that is because we do not allow ourselves the idea that life is not serious. Because somehow we feel if you aren’t engaged in something serious you’re a loafer. You’re not contributing to the social welfare. And so, in this way, the artist has a peculiar role in this society. Very, very interesting. Because the artist is a very deceptive fellow. He appears to be the supreme luxury, the irrelevant fellow. You can afford an artist, you can afford to buy paintings, if you have surplus money. That’s a luxury. So you can support an artist, and we call it ‘fine arts.’ The completely useless person who makes paintings—which are sort of big labels or posters that you stick on your utilitarian walls to decorate them.
“But on the other hand, the artist is the man who shows you the future long before everybody else sees it. The artist is the eye opener. Just because the artist is distinct in role from the preacher and the philosopher, the artist can get away with all sorts of things. For example, in our culture, if you’re a university professor, a doctor, or a minister — these three professions: teacher, doctor, minister — you have to be very careful about your private life. Because the moment you have any alliances that are not quite regular, people’s tongues begin to wag. And why do they wag? Because they say, ‘The way you behave is inconsistent with your profession, with what you profess. You are teaching people the good life, the healthy life. And you live in this disreputable way. You have a mistress. You have something or other going on.’ But the moment an artist should take a mistress, this is what is expected of him. Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s an artist.’ In other words: he doesn’t matter. He’s irrelevant. He is an entertainer; some sort of clown. But on the other hand, if you belong to a high culture, you patronize artists. See?
“So the role of the artist is very fascinating. Because he appears to be the clown, the jester, the absolutely unimportant and irrelevant person. And yet, it’s actually through the artist that we learn how to live. Not through the preacher, not through the philosopher, not through the professor. It is the artist who teaches us, whether he does it visually with painting or sculpture, tactually, or whether, above all, in music."