Bill and Ted and what art is for

May 1, 2022

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is funny, stylish, and imaginative. I think it's close to perfect. It's also, at least in part, an ironic reflection on how ineffective art is as a tool for social change.

The film ends with a character explaining how Bill and Ted's band shapes the course of history:

"Wyld Stallyns' music has become the foundation of our whole society... eventually your music will help put an end to war and poverty. It will align the planets and bring them into universal harmony, allowing meaningful contact with all forms of life, from extraterrestrial beings to common household pets. And... it's excellent for dancing."

It's so overblown – aligning the planets? The hyperbole is funny on its face. But this absurd grandeur also invites us to consider the real ambitions of those who forgot that art makes nothing happen.

Recent history is littered with such failure. Kurt Vonnegut said this about artists' efforts to stop the Vietnam War:

"[E]very artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against [our war in Vietnam]. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high."

If your highest priority is solving a concrete problem like hunger or poverty, art is the wrong tool. "[P]oems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone." [1] At some point, you need to actually move food or money or whatever else.

None of this is to say that art is useless or not worthwhile [2]. Others have written better than I can about art's value [3], but put simply, art reveals beauty that clarifies life, and it helps us endure. The best art is made with knowledge of its power – and its limits.

[1] Robert Adams in his essay Photographing Evil

[2] I'm writing this because of how seriously I take art, not because I want to diminish it.

[3] Robert Adams's book Beauty in Photography (my notes) contains my favorite writing about art's purpose and limits.