Real Value

George Grosz.  ECLIPSE OF THE SUN. 1926.

George Grosz. ECLIPSE OF THE SUN. 1926.

Early in the 1954 Universal horror film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, ichthyologist Dr. David Reed launches into an idealistic speech on how finding out more about the “creature”—which at this point is little more than the fossil fragment of some kind of amphibious creature that could have been humanoid—will contribute to our understanding of the development of life on earth, perhaps helping us to understand better the evolution of man, knowledge that might help humanity, as they journey out into the depths of space, adapt to life on planets not amenable to humans.  When he has finished his speech, he is brought up short by his boss, Dr. Mark Williams, who counters, “Nice speech, David.  But there still a practical side to it.  If I sound brash and more like a banker than a scientist, try to remember that it takes money to run an institute like ours.  A find of any real importance can be of great financial value to us also.”

It is revealing that this position is articulated by the movie’s villain—in true Universal horror tradition, the monster is less a villain than a victim of circumstances—who at least has the decency to gesture toward an apology for his crassness (or, less accurately, “brashness”).  Were he to say it today, though, Dr. Williams would merely be voicing the default position of our culture, no apologies needed.  In fact, it’s a rather timid pronouncement of what currently is held to be honorable pragmatism.  Instead of, “A find of any real importance can be of great financial value to us also,” today’s Dr. Mark Williams might say, “A find of great financial value might also have scientific importance.”  Note that I changed “real importance” to “scientific importance” because to this way of thinking, making money is what’s of “real” importance.  Everything else is ancillary.  It’s considered bad manners at the least but is usually seen as naïveté to imply that there is anything of importance that cannot, and perhaps should not, turn a profit.

That attitude has metastasized into all aspects of life.  If one can’t see what’s to be gained from something, it usually is ignored.  Recently I was talking to a bright high school senior who’s readying himself for college and had begun reading Moby Dick for an English class.  After having read the first two chapters, though, he assured me he had no plans to finish it.  When I asked him why—especially in light of the fact that he told me he’d enjoyed reading it so far—he told me that his teacher had not come up with a good reason—hell, any reason—for students to read it.  He’d merely assigned it to them.  So, what was the point of reading it?

This is a topsy-turvy view of learning because, when it comes down to it, whether or not moby-dicksomething is learned is entirely up to the student.  Granted, blaming the teacher for not learning is old hat, but this young man didn’t even bother studying Moby Dick.  He merely stopped reading it.  No argument had been made for the novel’s use-value, so no interest was shown, as if only that which has use is valuable.  The reality, though, is that profitability, or even usefulness, is a residue that may or may not appear in any kind of object or activity.  The only real value is the value you give something, and that isn’t done by deciding whether or not you think it has any worth.  Rather, whatever you encounter is simply worth the care you invest in it.  No judgment is involved.  Whether or not you’ll profit from it is beside the point.

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2 Responses to Real Value

  1. Well done! I would add that the “usefulness” standard gets applied to the arts and sciences unequally. People seem to have no trouble getting their heads around the idea that not every bit of scientific research is going to have a practical application: You just need physicists who are experts at the electron structure of inert gases or what not, to keep the field full of thinkers, because who knows what our practical need will be in a generation. When it comes to the arts, though, it’s considered elitist or worse if art isn’t selling enough tickets to turn a profit.

    My brother has a PhD in chemistry, but I can’t pick up his dissertation and read it and understand a word of it, but if a piece of art is mystifying, then it’s too easily written off as a failure.

  2. chaszak says:

    Ah! Mystifying art is what keeps me going. I’ve been saddened by the antipathy toward difficult art on the grounds that it is elitist, essentially useless when compared to transparent art about “important” topics. And so I think you’re right about the association of difficulty in art with its uselessness and so worthlessness. The glories of “difficult” art is an upcoming blog post, I think, inspired in part by two wonderful theater pieces I saw at Minneapolis’s Open Eye Figure Theatre.

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