Why do we hate pointless creations?


I bristle with irritation at the “artist” who thoughtlessly drops a splat of paint on a canvas, which is found interesting by only 3 people out of 7 billion. Why does this provoke the contempt of myself and many others? How can I defend my annoyance at rubbish “art” while playing and designing video games?

Game designer Dan Cook tweeted the question:

Cook, Daniel. (2012). Tweet. Accessed 10/03/2014, from https://twitter.com/danctheduck/status/261745370458124289

Cook, Daniel. (2012). Tweet. Accessed 10/03/2014, from https://twitter.com/danctheduck/status/261745370458124289

There is a common perception among non-gamers (and even gamers) that games are a little bit shameful, because they are by nature a waste of time.

I think this a culturally-constructed myth.

Does a maker of toasters ask themselves, “Is using my toaster the best possible way a person could make use of the precious minutes of their finite existence?” This question seems a bit silly, but why is it silly? Admittedly the answer to it is no: We do not expect our toasters to promote intellectual growth, education, or social reform.

They are not designed for achieving those purposes but that is okay. The purpose they fulfil is breakfast. And breakfast is a need that exists in parallel to contributing to civilisation and fixing the problems of the world.

Fulfilling these basic needs is not irresponsible. It is practical. Trying to redirect all your time from breakfast to instead go towards volunteering for charity or conducting medical research is going to leave you hungry. And a starving person is not an effective medical scientist.

Entertainment such as games don’t provide fuel for your body, but they do provide for a psychological need. A life devoid of all enjoyment would not be psychologically healthy.

I am unashamedly amused by mindless action movies like Death Race. They are often regarded as inferior to films that interrogate social questions and provoke thought, but really they are in different categories. It is like calling a shovel inferior to a toaster because it can’t make you breakfast. Those two tools were designed for completely different purposes. And so are action movies (or “entertainment art”) and movies with thought-provoking content (or “serious-theme art”) – they are designed with similar materials and techniques to achieved very different purposes.

People seem to estimate the value of someone’s work (be it artwork or otherwise) with some basic parameters:

  • Compensation: What goes into it. You should pay people for what they had to endure to do the work. Includes effort, pain, and time. (see eg Kruger et al., 2004)
  • Appreciation: What you get out of it. You should pay people for the benefits you glean such as need-fulfilment (eg food), enjoyment, and thought provocation. (see eg Regan, 1971, Strohmetz et al., 2002)

And now consider the output of that awful artist who just slaps paint randomly on canvases. You could argue that, since this guy’s work isn’t particularly hard to do, he doesn’t deserve much compensation, and since few people get much out of it, that you don’t need to show much appreciation. And so adding together compensation and appreciation, the total value of the work is still very low.

I wouldn’t expect a society to support someone whose contributions back to society are so small that society is at a net loss for supporting that person. For example, with an artist that produces total rubbish – you could argue that it is still art, and you can say that it is fine to do as hobby or leisure, but you can’t deny that society isn’t likely to tolerate that as a full-time profession. It is possible for something to be so niche that it wasn’t worth the time to make it.

I don’t see serious-theme art as something specifically different to fields like philosophy or science, in terms of how I judge the value of their work. A philosopher or scientist pursues their area of interest precisely because they are passionate about it, but they accept that they are exploring the unknown, and so they may turn up with nothing of particular use to anyone. The nature of breaking new ground is that we simply can’t know what we will find, and whether or not it will advance civilisation all that much. So these explorers are supported by an individual or a whole society that recognises this risk of null returns, but has confidence in their passion and competence – if there is anything to discover in their topic of interest, they will find it.

Scientists and philosophers contribute to society by advancing technologies and improving our collective culture by creating and deconstructing ideas and ways of thinking, so that over time, we become more enlightened in our perspective and our interpretations of the world. This seems to me to basically be the value of a serious-theme artist: offering new ideas, or analysing existing ideas, and in so doing contributing to our collective culture and providing us with new ways of thinking about things. Which is probably why I never went for the whole, “the artwork as no meaning outside of what you make of it”. That indicates to me that the artist isn’t really trying to convey a new idea or explain a deconstruction of an existing idea. It seems lazy, considering my understanding of the artist’s job. It is reasonable to expect a society to refuse to support someone with such low prospects of contributing back to that society.

See also:

Bonus Thoughts:

  1. It is reasonable for a society to avoid spending 100% of its resources on such exploratory pursuits that carry the risk of null returns. In fact, this would be the well-studied domain of allocating resources between exploration and exploitation. This is where ants adjust the number of workers who are randomly searching for new food sources, and those that are harvesting a known food source, depending on the number available workers and the quantity and quality of the known food sources. See eg Toyokawa W, Kim H-r, Kameda T (2014) Human Collective Intelligence under Dual Exploration-Exploitation Dilemmas. PLoS ONE 9(4): e95789. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095789. On this and Dan Cook’s original question, see also Opportunity Cost.
  2. Compensation + Appreciation is a simplistic model. There are other factors like scarcity that influence judgements of value. So the more unique and unusual someone’s ideas, the more skill they require, and the less reproducible they are, the more valuable their artwork is likely to be perceived to be.
  3. It is possible to design games for multiple purposes such as entertainment and education, or entertainment and persuasion, or entertainment and self-reflection. But a knife designed purely to fillet fish will always be superior at that task than a swiss army knife. Generally speaking, the more purposes you try to serve simultaneously, the more compromises you have to make in your design. But for some clever designs that meet multiple purposes, see:

Luis von Ahn’s “Games with a Purpose” and TED talk

Ian Bogost’s concept of “procedural rhetoric”

Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken”

and the broader phenomenon of “serious games”



Kruger, J., Wirtz, D., Van Boven, L., & Altermatt, T. W. (2004). The effort heuristic. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 91–98

Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(6), 627-639.

Strohmetz, D. B., Rind, B., Fisher, R., & Lynn, M. (2002). Sweetening the Till: The Use of Candy to Increase Restaurant Tipping1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(2), 300-309.

You’ll notice that the studies on appreciation that I cite are really studies on reciprocity: The benefit that the subject receives is indicative of a cost incurred for the experimenter, like buying you a chocolate. As such these experiments confound appreciation and compensation. Is the subject showing appreciation for the benefit they received, or giving compensation for the cost incurred by the giver? The problem is that they use zero-sum games, where any benefit I produce for you is due to an equivalent loss on my part. A study that actually investigated appreciation separately from compensation would require non-zero-sum games, where we both benefit, or maybe you benefit and I simply have no costs or losses. I haven’t been able to find such a study yet but I will keep looking.

7 thoughts on “Why do we hate pointless creations?

  1. Yena, for two weeks I once had a travelling salesman’s job selling carbon paper and failed dismally because I was useless at chatting up office girls to get past them to the manager, and frankly I couldn’t get excited about carbon paper. It’s worthy stuff, and people used to buy it in other places, so the failure was obviously my fault. Hey, it’s not a fair world, and not even rational unless the 7 deadly sins are renamed as the 7 prime virtues for sure success. If people want get excited and reward you for letting them Whac-a-mole on a screen, then clearly you deserve your dollars. As for the splat-artists, I suspect they are like the awful poems I was flooded with as a literary editor – created by terminally narcissistic characters who expected the world to understand their own supreme importance.

    • The connection to the awful poetry had not occurred to me. That is a really interesting idea. I suspect you may be right. I suppose my article here was more about economics of the situation than speculating on the motivations behind these creations. Perhaps I overlooked some relevant material in that respect.

  2. HI Dominicus,

    I understand what you mean, and I’m no fan of slap art. But I think your argument would carry more weight if you could identify which particular artworks you are referring to, which are appreciated by 3 people out of 7 billion (surely they’re not hanging in a public art gallery in that case?). Also, I think some abstract, quickly done paintings could work well as house decorations, which gives them a supposedly useful function.
    You might also like to consider the kind of zen calligraphy (Hitsuzendo) that has been considered an art in Japan for centuries. A master calligrapher gets in an appropriate state of mind, then spends approximately 2 seconds painting a single character or phrase, and this is considered a serious artwork.

    • I remember as a child being taken to an art gallery. There were some very interesting and some very pretty things there. But there was also a massive canvas (probably about 5 square metres) that just had one dollop of red paint brushed on the middle of it. I turned to my mother and I asked her, “What’s that doing in here?” She leaned down to me and whispered, “I agree with you.”
      That painting would be a good example of art of questionable value. I noticed that the blurb next to it said that it was donated to the gallery by the artist.

      To clarify: I wasn’t suggesting that if compensation is too low, then nothing else matters. Quite the opposite. I was saying that the perceived value is derived from multiple factors, one of which is compensation, and another is appreciation. So even if something took zero effort and zero time and zero skill, it could still be extremely valuable because it brings a massive portion of the population a deeply euphoric experience. Similarly, if a random, abstract artwork, or a 2-second intricate squiggle, is found aesthetically pleasing, then it clearly is of some value to some people. But the more critical question is: Will that artist be able to make such art as their full-time profession, or will the value be too low for society to be willing to support them? By the way, I think our current society is quite terrible at identifying and supporting valuable philosophers, artists and scientists. Too often geniuses are not nurtured and supported, but left to stagnate in dead-end jobs pursuing their passion in their spare time.

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