Universal Declaration of the Human Right to Uselessness
That is the great thing about performance, in that it is absolutely useless,
said the artist Monica Ross. For one of her performances she used to recite, from memory, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She also said:
Art really needs to keep open a space which is useless, so that things can come into that space which are not designated as required or needed, because if everything is required or needed, then things are not going to happen, not going to appear. So the strange, the uncanny, the not required, needs a door. *1
But to experience the useless is today for man the most difficult thing, according to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The useful, he said, is understood as that which is practically useful and of immediate technical purpose, like that which produces an effect of some kind with which I can do business or trade. However, he claimed, that which is "most useful is the useless." *2
Europe - or the West - has grappled with the idea of uselessness for a long time, at least since Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, through to Dante, Montaigne, Leopardi, Bataille, Ionesco and so on.
In 1831 / 1832 the Italian poet, essayist, philosopher Giacomo Leopardi and his friend Antonio Ranieri proposed to publish a weekly journal that was designed to be useless. It was intended as an act of resistance against a century entirely dedicated to utility. In a Preamble they declared:
We recognize openly that our journal will have no use. [...] And in a century in which all books, all printed papers, and all business cards are useful, we consider it reasonable to finally publish a journal that professes to be useless; man wants to distinguish himself […], when all is useful, he can only advance the useless in order to provoke thought. *3
Not surprisingly the Florentine authorities did not agree to the project and the journal was never published.
A large part of us is “owned by money,” but the useless is that which renders us more human, wrote Nuccio Ordine in a little booklet published in 2013, entitled The Use of Uselessness.*4
If Uselessness is that which renders us more human, do we not have a right to Uselessness?
One man on the other side of the debate was the industrialist and educator Mr Gradgrind, Charles Dickens' character from the novel Hard Times. Dickens' city, Coketown, was an unforgettable city in which everything was dominated by a philosophy of utility. Protagonists raged a daily battle against all that which could impede productivity. Gradgrind said:
Now, what I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir!*5
On the same side of the debate as Gradgrind was John Locke. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education from 1693 Locke argued vehemently against poetry and other pursuits, which would make young people waste time and lose money.
tis to me the strangest thing in the world that the father should desire or suffer [poetry] to be cherished or improved. Methinks the parents should labour to have it stifled and suppressed as much as may be; and I know not what reason a father can have to wish his son a poet, who does not desire to have him bid defiance to all other callings and business. *6
According to Locke, if something didn’t earn money, it wasn’t worth pursuing.
But Uselessness is that which renders us more human.
In a speech at the University of Madrid in 1934 the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca advocated the pursuit of useless activities, in order to ‘nurture a little grain of madness’, without which it would be ‘unwise to live’.*7
We have a right to uselessness.
Here, therefore, The General Assembly of Garden Gnomes proclaims this Universal Declaration of the Human Right To Uselessness:
All human beings are born useless and equal in Uselessness. They are endowed with un-reason and should not act towards one another for any purpose whatsoever.
Everyone is entitled to all the Uselessness set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as education, occupation, deployment, unemployment, retirement.
Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the order of dysfunctionality to which a person belongs, be that by association, institution or nation.
Everyone has the right to be less, to do less and to protection against utilitarian constructs.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and utilitarianism shall be prohibited in all their forms.
No one shall be subjected to purpose or to cruel, inhuman or useful deployment.
Here, therefore, The General Assembly of Garden Gnomes has proclaimed this Universal Declaration of the Human Right To Uselessness as a common standard of practice for all peoples and all nations,
to the possibility that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education, of Art and useless pursuits, to promote respect for this right
and by random measures, national and international, to invite its universal and spontaneous recognition and observance, among the people of all cultures.
© Claudia Kappenberg 2014
*1 ELAA European Live Art Archive, Monica Ross in interview with Brian Catling, http://www.liveartarchive.eu/archive/artist/monica-ross-0
*2 Martin Heidegger in conversation with the psychiatrist Medard Boss in Zürich in 1963; Medard Boss Ed, Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters. (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001) 159, 160.
*3 Giacomo Leopardi and Antonio Ranieri, Lo Spettatore Fiorentino, Preambolo, quoted in Nuccio Ordine, L’Utilité de L’Inutile, Manifeste, Trans. Luc Hersant et Patrick Hersant, (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2013) 21.
*4 Ordine, L’Utilité de L’Inutile, 22.
*5 Charles Dickens, Hard Times, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1905) 3; quoted in Ordine, L’Utilité de L’Inutile, 29.
*6 John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Section 174, p99. www.thefederalistpapers.org
*7 Federico Garcia Lorca, speech at University of Madrid, 1934, quoted in Ordine, L’Utilité de L’Inutile, 27/28.