Useless?

October 7, 2011

"We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless."

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Alongside the Qu'ran, Shakespeare and the Bible, the artful words of Oscar Wilde regularly top lists of the most quoted quotations, turning up in wedding speeches, school essays and magazine blogs so often as to be something of a cliché. Put simply, his words are used because they're so useful – especially, in the case of this blog post, because he's saying something about being useless.

"Useless" is the theme of this year's Lisbon Biennale ExperimentaDesign, where COLORS 79 "Collector" is currently being exhibited. "Collector" (in case you haven't read it) featured collectors and their collections. The things they chose to collect (used tea bags, political memorabilia, huge plastic dinosaurs, amongst others) were, almost all of them, apparently useless.

Except they weren't. Or, at least, we hoped they weren't. The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, in The System of Objects, challenged the idea that any purchased or collected object could be useless. By collecting something, collectors "say something" about themselves. Collecting is a fetish – a form of self-expression. And the idea that objects might be "useless" is being challenged in other areas, most notably recycling. In Canada, used diapers are a source of diesel fuel, and the human hair from barbershop floors has long been used to clean up oil slicks.

It's unlikely Oscar Wilde ever predicted how useful his aphorisms would be for the next hundred years of adolescent essayists and best men, but that sort of proves Baudrillard's point: usefulness and uselessness are in the eye of beholder. Nothing is useless, with enough imagination.


COLORS 79 at the Lisbon Biennale ExperimentaDesign
28 September – 07 November
Lounging Space, Antigo Tribunal da Boa Hora
Largo da Boa Hora, 13
1200 Lisboa