When I was trying to study philosophy I came across similar questions and found a part answer in Wittgenstein's idea of "The meaning is the use", and the associated concept of "use value".
So what use is the artwork that I do? Perhaps in asking myself the question and making some sort of attempt to answer it, it might help others, as I know it's a question most artists at one time or another ask themselves. So here goes nothing... Most of my work begins with me listening to people, so I think I had better start there. This is Mary's* story, told to me a few weeks ago.
All the various elements in the drawing above have been developed in response to stories heard, things seen and events experienced, however they have now been poetically refashioned into a mythic landscape, one that is centred on an impossible tower, an image that was designed as an allegorical response to being told that after living in Chapeltown for a while all those hopes and desires that someone had before they arrived now seemed hollow promises of a bright future, the towers of the city were not full of riches, but were impossible mirages.
So what use is it to make an image like this? I would argue that in the same way a fairy tale contains within it something of the subconscious, something about the way things are that we don't always want to confront, so images like this become entry points into conversations and meditations on what the world is like. Not as answers to questions, that is perhaps forpoliticians and not as some sort of sociological study, but as a poetic image, and if it is argued poetry has no use, then perhaps this type of work doesn't have a use either, but I would hope that by providing a window within which people can take a step backwards from reality, they may be able to somehow see it more clearly and in that step backwards a use value is born.
It could be argued that I have no business making the art I do in an area like Chapeltown, an area where most of the people who live there see themselves as part of the African diaspora. I think of myself as someone who's own story rubs up alongside a series of stories from somewhere else, but even though these stories don't refer to my own background and ethnicity, they affect me and make me think. So I respond to stories and shape them according to my own predilections but I suspect that is what everybody does, we will all interpret the world through the colour of the lens that sits over our own eyes. We can never be objective, but we can emphasise with other people, other animals or things and attempt to feel what they feel, understand what they understand or simply be like they are and in that empathy lies perhaps the main reason for making images.
So what use is art? Perhaps it is to give a shape to feelings, emotions, observations and thoughts that can become entry points for others to develop their own awareness. These shapes in turn allow us to develop links between ourselves because they help us to create stories about things we were not aware of before. In the stories we tell we shape the world, in the shapes we make we refashion the way the world is seen and as we do we create new possibilities for how we will engage with whatever it is that is out there to be engaged with. Art in effect becomes an intermediary between one thing and another. In religious art it can work as an intermediary between the material world and the spiritual world, a connection between humans and gods, and in a more materialistic culture it can operate as a communication channel between speakers of different verbal languages or between those that inhabit different cultures. Art makes us more connected with things, but it doesn't tell people what to do with this awareness, something else will always step in to fill that gap, power abhors a vacuum.