03/07/2012 11:49 am ET Updated May 07, 2012


I was driving along I-10 ("The 10" as we say in So Cal) and noticed something about the billboards. (First I noticed there were billboards, as I had recently moved from Vermont, where all billboards were removed from the roads in favor of the view.) About half of the billboards advertise some pleasure, indulgence, excess, or vice (gambling, dating, fast food, free spending, liquor, etc.) and the other half advertised remedies for the troubles you get into (rehab programs for everything I just mentioned, lawyers who will get you out of trouble like DUIs, divorce, and bankruptcy, as well as weight loss, cancer and heart disease care, etc.). Both sides come out about even, not coincidentally, because each habit has its concomitant fix -- what is advertised on half the billboards will save you from the other half. Even religion is advertised, as the treatment for original sin.

It's some consolation that whatever we are drawn to do can be undone, often at even greater cost, but it seems like a pointless cycle, especially when the vices we embrace are generally sold directly to us. I admire people who discover their own vices.

Generally the expense of the initial habit and pain of the cure isn't enough to keep us on the straight and narrow, and we are led to believe that the straight and narrow path is void, featureless, boring, and uneventful (like this stretch of The 10, commercial sprawl blotting features of the landscape, while we, captive in our cars; may as well not be going anywhere; a good part of the time we're not). This, we must infer, is our original state, pointless ennui from which no one yet has the opportunity to profit. You begin to long for the desert or ocean; for anything untouched.

What have we ourselves created that we can be really proud of? What have we made or done worth remembering or keeping around?

I like to think art stands above the blight, but art has always done pretty much anything it's been asked to do. It's been (and is) entertainment, past time, status symbol, decorative amenity, ideological messenger, subversive agent, corrupter, and moral exemplar. Art has reinforced and encouraged every appetite and its every antidote. Art is often in thrall to the same forces that erect the billboards. Maybe the billboards are art.

"Terrible, this: all art is useless," Paul Klee said. I don't think this is as hopeless as it sounds.

Ultimately, at its most penetrating, art has no real function. It's not an answer, it's not another need; it is a trace connection to the self, that gets you past yourself. Art is a heightened sense of being, not of purpose -- a stirring, a recognition that causes us to know and value who we are, not for what we can buy or consume but for who we may yet discover ourselves to be.

At its best art stands apart, at the center.