This lecture was delivered in the Department of Art and Design lecture series at San Jose State University, on September 14, 2010.
I’d like to question the relationship between art and design. This is might be a foolish question. For most people, it isn’t a question at all. Art is art; design is design; and that is all there is to it. And yet, in our culture, it never quite goes away. Art and design are at once too proximate to one another and too distant, too similar and too distinct. The terms rub up against one another at key historical moments, raising themselves as questions as they have in our day.
The relationship between art and design is not idyll, neither insignificant nor fixed. At the most basic level, it is a question of objects and of actions, of the creative act and the created artifact: to address it is to address the problem of making as a problem for the individual creator and as a problem for the community, whether that community is viewed as a community of critical subjects, citizens, or consumers.
At another level, the question of art and design is a question of institutions and systems, of charities, governments, corporations, and the public trust. It is a question of the structure and purpose of our institutions of cultural self-consciousness, our museums and institutions of higher education. To question the relationship between art and design is to question the way that we encounter and interact with the objects of our world, but it is also to question the way that we teach ourselves to approach those objects and to live with them, it is to question the nature and type of objects that we venerate, study, and preserve – if we choose to venerate, study, and preserve any objects at all. For me, as an educator, the question of art and design is fundamentally a question of education and of general education in particular, and it is a key question. What do we need to know – and what do we need to teach our children in order for them to know – how to live in the world that we have created for ourselves today?
That question itself already bears an indication of the provisional answer that I would like to offer to the question of art and design. To speak of the world that we have created is to speak of the world of design. Learning to live in our created world means learning to negotiate a world of objects and systems created by design and this notion in turn suggests that design education should occupy a far greater place, or play a far greater role, in general education than it does today.
I am not suggesting that we begin to treat design as if it were art – to simply replace art history with design history, for example. Design objects are fundamentally different from art objects; they cannot be turned into self-sufficient or static representations; they aspire to no autonomous meaning beyond their community of users. An education in design – for consumers, citizens, and designers alike – will be different from an education in the finer points of fine art. Design education proposes an entirely different perspective on the created world and this is part of our topic today.
The question of art and design is a difficult question to ask, much more difficult than it probably should be. It is difficult in part because it has been asked before, because answers have been offered again and again over the last one hundred and fifty years. These answers – and the perspectives on the question that they imply – now seem at once familiar and fruitless. Hasn’t someone already answered this question?
The question is also frequently denied or avoided.
It is easy to understand why artists, art critics, art historians, art educators, museum directors, curators, and the governmental and communal supporters of art and the art market would deny or at least downplay the precise nature and pervasive significance of design in contemporary culture and why they would persist in their praise of Fine Art. It is also clear why they would attempt to recuperate design as one of the fine arts, through rhetoric and methods of presentation and interpretation.
The products of the Fine Art tradition in the West and many of the aesthetic objects from around the globe that have recently been recuperated by that tradition are of course fascinating and revelatory objects deserving of celebration, preservation, and study, though not always for the reasons they are currently being celebrated or studied. Put differently, the celebrants of these objects obviously have a measure of self-interest at stake in promoting their study, but this self-interest is not unjustified by many of the works themselves. We should not, in other words, expect artists or art historians to be among the most interested advocates of design, nor should we simply discount their interests. The Fine Art tradition is a fascinating tradition.
Designers love it too. Here I’m thinking of the comments one often encounters in some kinds of design writing, when design writers – often designers themselves – loudly advertize their interest in Fine Art. Design is nice, they seem to suggest, but Art…(The recent fascination with Ed Ruscha, for example.)
This ambivalent relationship is of course at the core of our dialectic. Fine Art is our cultural idol. Designers idolize it too. Even to the point of denigrating design. Design might be clever or even artistic, but it is not art. The gesture here is one of self-promotion by association. A gesture made by someone with the good taste not to praise themselves to mightily.
There are also those designers who either aspire to become artists or who actually do so. Design is not art, for them, for they have become artists. A few years ago, I was on a conference panel with Sheila Levrant de Brettville. Sheila told our audience that to work for a client is to be oppressed.
There are of course other motives for the ambivalent relationship between art and design. Art is good for the design business. Designers can point to it to prove that they are not frivolous. Art is frivolous, artists are frivolous; but design is functional, created at the behest of client concerns. Design might be artistic but it isn’t art.
Designers want to place a premium on design, but not too much of a premium. If it’s too expensive, clients won’t buy it anymore. So long as Fine Art exists, design can be pragmatic, no matter how fun, frivolous, or purely, joyfully, sensuously aesthetic it might actually be.
But these are not the only reasons the question is denied. Some design writers evidence no interest at all in the question of art or design. John Thackara is one. Thackara hosts the Doors of Perception design conferences. For Thackara, contemporary art just isn’t very interesting. Design is interesting. Design does things; it solves problems. It gives material shape to the way that we live. Fine Art might offer an amusing entertainment, a pleasant diversion, but design is real. It changes lives. And who can speak of entertainment when so many things in our world manifestly need to be changed, and changed by design? This is iconoclasm. Art is dead: long live design, or rather, long live artless design.
This position is of course rooted in an ideology of functionalist utilitarianism that goes back to Plato. Who needs a picture of a bed when they can enjoy the comforts of an actual bed? And who wants to bother with an actual bed when they can think about the perfect form of a bed and understand the relationship between the two?
There are several ironies here. The foremost, for me, is that these pragmatic functionalists should in fact be so ideologically motivated. Design has never been purely functional nor art purely functionless. Acting as if it was won’t help us unravel the relationship between art and design nor approach the created objects of our world in a more productive way.
Another irony here is closer to our point. The functionalist paradigm in design is dialectically bound to its mirror image, the functionless paradigm that frames Fine Art. I particularly appreciate the fluidity with which these positions can be adopted and swapped without changing the fundamental structure of the thought complex.
Fine Art is said to inspire disinterested contemplation, while design motivates interest. For some of us, this is a statement in praise of Fine Art. For others, it is a statement favoring design. Each class of objects can either be praised or denied on the basis of this ideological framework even though the framework is and has always been false, or at best only partially true in limited circumstances. Every element of the framework, however positive, is an ideological formation.
According to this ideology, art creates critical subjects while design creates consumers and therefore Fine Art is superior to design. But simultaneously, the world of design is a world of functional, pragmatic realism – the Aristotle to Fine Art’s Plato. Thus the consumers of design are to be praised as active agents, alive in a real world. Viewed in its best light, design provides things that people need and produces and distributes them in the most efficacious way possible, for the benefit of both individuals and society as a whole.
The dialectic of art and design here is a dialectic in which each pole can be praised or rejected from the opposite end: promoters of design denigrate art as frivolous, promoters of Fine Art denigrate design as crass and commercial. Yet the whole system, the entire framework is so clearly tautological and solipsistic, so clearly cut off from the real nature of objects in our world that it is hardly ever discussed. Why bother? Art objects have never been purely free; design objects have never been purely functional. Perhaps it is not really worth discussing.
This framework is of course rather simplistic. Let’s expand the frame: technics.
Though design is often associated with a functionalist ideal – form follows function, etc. – pure functionalism is more rightly found in the sphere of the applied sciences and engineering, the realm Lewis Mumford called “technics”. Our dialectic, in other words, actually has three key terms – art, design, and technics – with design swinging in an amorphous middle space between the other two terms, praised or denigrated for each affiliation in turn.
Here we might pause to recall that the Greeks used the word techne for the activities and skills of craftsman and for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techne for the Greeks refers to any act of poiesis, of making or creation and thus encompasses all three spheres of activity –abstract, aesthetic, and technical – without favoring any one form over another. This is important to remember because it suggests that the Greeks approached the created world from a perspective that is utterly distinct from our own. To see through their eyes would require us to venerate all acts of creation equally, without transforming any created thing into either a functionless idol or a purely functional machine. Such a vision would require a greater degree of fascination or even simple curiosity than many of us, I suspect, possess. It would also entail a sweeping reorganization of our institutions and educational practices and orientation.
Vilém Flusser discusses the relationship between art, design, and technics in a short essay, “On the Word Design”. After briefly elaborating the histories of the relevant terms, he writes:
“The words design, machine, technology, ars and art are closely related to one another, one term being unthinkable without the others, and they all derive from the same existential view of the world. However, this internal connection has been denied for centuries (at least since the Renaissance). Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and ‘hard’, the other aesthetic, evaluative and ‘soft’. This unfortunate split started to become irreversible toward the end of the nineteenth century. In the gap, the word design formed a bridge between the two. It could do this since it was an expression of the internal connection between art and technology. Hence in contemporary life, design more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.” (The Shape of Things, 19)
Flusser’s conclusion – that a new form of culture is possible by design – is perhaps the most interesting part of the paragraph, but we will have to come back to it.
Why did modern bourgeois culture separate the world of art from the world of machines?
Modern science and the Fine Art tradition emerged more or less simultaneously in early modern Europe. And there are instructive similarities between them. Both are fascinated with the world of things, yet both seek to transcend that world – this world – in specific ways. Both extract meaning from the chaos of phenomena and both leave a trail of works behind them.
Both are of course products of the Protestant reformation and the rise of capitalism. Far more thoroughly than Nietzsche’s 1882 proclamation of the death of god, Martin Luther’s revolution banished the sacred from this world and liberated human will within it. A world without god is a world waiting to be shaped by human hands, but it is also a fallen world in which things too are fallen. In such a world, functionlessness is close to godliness, but so is mastery. The aspiration of the bourgeois is to transcend the world through an utilitarianism so pure that it approaches functionlessness. But it is vanity to aspire immediately to functionlessness, such is the fate only of sovereigns and saints, or is itself a gift of god, a function of the muse. This is the core ambivalence motivating the dialectic of art and design.
In one of the founding documents of the modern era, his Discourse on Method (1637), René Descartes advanced an agenda and method for modern science while also distancing himself from the aesthetics realm. Fables or stories awaken the mind, and poetry has a “ravishing delicacy and sweetness”, he says, but such things make one, as it were, a stranger to one’s own thoughts. “Fables,” he says, “make us imagine many events as possible when they are not.” Descartes “delighted in mathematics, because of the certainty and evidence of its reasonings.” He devoted himself to research in theoretical and applied science. In announcing his method and its first fruits, Descartes claimed that his research:
“opened [his] eyes to the possibility of gaining knowledge which would be very useful in life, and of discovering a practical philosophy which might replace the speculative philosophy taught in the schools. Through this philosophy,” he said in the key passage, “we could know the power and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies in our environment, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans; and we could use this knowledge – as the artisans use theirs – for all the purposes for which it is appropriate, and thus make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature.”
It is interesting that Descartes borrows the purpose of his science from the work of skilled artisans, though the scope of his project transcends and ultimately comes to subsume theirs. The Cartesian vision of technics is a vision that is built upon a foundation of design and that remains proximate to it. But it is also a vision that renounces any interest in the non-quantifiable realm.
In the Classical age, early modern science and industry could still be subjects of Enlightened fascination among the aristocratic classes, and the acquisition of Fine Art could signal both the power of monarchs and the rising fortunes of the bourgeoisie. But as science and industry truly began to take hold in the middle of the nineteenth century, and as art began to assert its value for its own sake, the tension between the poles of the dialectic became too great. Technics threatened to overwhelm the values of art, to reduce the world to a disenchanted realm of pure resource, what Heidegger would later call a “standing reserve”. The Arts and Crafts movement, in its various guises, was born of this tension, with a will to restore the value of work and not just for the bourgeoisie. As William Morris put it, “The cause of Art is the cause of the people… One day,” he said, “we shall win back Art, that is to say the pleasure of life; win back Art again to our daily labour.”
It is obviously enormously significant for our argument that Morris uses the word Art in reference to all created goods, indeed as a reference to the process of creation, rather than in reference to what we call Fine Art. Morris, in other words, is talking about both art and design. He is attacking the soullessness of most industrially produced or machine made goods, though he does admit the place and utility of the machine in modern life. But he is also, and just as intently, suggesting that Art must be a thing of the world rather than solely something for the salon.
His message fascinates me in part for its untimeliness. He wrote at a time when the design fields had yet to truly emerge in even their modern, let alone contemporary forms: a half-century before the foundation of the Bauhaus. And he is all but incomprehensible to us now. What he meant by art has almost nothing to do with contemporary art and what he understood by the machine has almost nothing to do with our machines; yet his enemies are still our enemies. Most importantly, though, Morris was unsuccessful in his task. The aesthetic sense he sought to restore to everyday life and labor devolved into mere aestheticism. The rent in culture that he sought to repair has remained open, at least in some ways, though our current cultural configuration, the space of questioning that has opened up for us now, signals that Morris might be ready for reappraisal in the context of both do-it-yourself culture and rapid prototyping.
But ultimately Morris was, like Ruskin, on the wrong side of history. The Futurists were closer to being correct in their praise of machines. Marinetti’s claim that a racing car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace surely speaks directly to contemporary popular taste: NASCAR now being among the most popular spectator sports in the United States. When Marinetti proclaims the presence of a new beauty in the world – the beauty of speed – he is praising an experience provoked by design. The futurists understood that the modern world was a world of active experience rather than a world of passive contemplation or consumption. Their works were themselves often either provocations or hymns in praise of experience. They were ushers, guiding users into the world of design.
And that world was then, in the early decades of the twentieth century, finally coming into existence. Jean Baudrillard claims that our technoculture did not really emerge until the foundation of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus, he claims,
“institutes the universal semantization of the environment in which everything become the object of a calculus of function and of signification. Total functionality, total semiurgy… This functionality defines itself as a double movement of analysis and rational synthesis of forms (not only industrial, but environmental and social in general). It is a synthesis of form and function, of ‘beauty and utility’, of art and technology. … It extends the aesthetic to the entire everyday world; at the same time it is all of technique in the service of everyday life.”(Design and Environment”186-7)
With the Bauhaus, our relationship to things changes: functional objects signify with a new fluidity. The whole environment becomes a distinctly new kind of created world. But the transformation inaugurated by that institution was incomplete. The school closed its doors and the union of art and design, of art and technology eluded other schools.
Two cultures (or more)
The split between the scientific and the aesthetic is still deeply embedded in the structure of our cultural and educational institutions today. C.P. Snow famously referred to the arts and sciences as “two cultures”, suggesting that these two cultures had utterly lost the ability to communicate with one another. Jean-François Lyotard described the same phenomenon as the postmodern condition. In the postmodern condition, according to Lyotard, no single rule holds true in both the arts and the sciences.
This division has its roots at the beginning of the modern era, but institutionally, for us, this situation can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century, when two important changes occurred in the organization of higher education, particularly in the United States. The first change had to do with the separation of liberal arts education from professional or vocational education. The second change concerned the disingenuous alignment of the liberal arts with the quantitative methods and scientistic orientation of the social and hard sciences, primarily through specialization and pseudo-scientific research models.
By aligning themselves with the quantitative methods and scientistic orientation of the social sciences, the qualitative or hermeneutic fields of the Humanities proper hoped to retain some legitimacy in a functionalist or utilitarian culture that only grudgingly retained a place for them. Meanwhile, those schools or programs that edged too close to direct application were secluded from the liberal arts, either in the form of graduate degrees, as in the case of medical school or law school, or as a “lesser” alternative to liberal arts education, in vocational degrees. This is another story of mutual ambivalence. When information or knowledge presents itself as too close to the world, it is disdained. But it is likewise disdained for being too far from it. Medical school and law school retain a curious allure in our culture as essentially vocational programs in fields endowed with an abstract and transcendent prestige. To be a doctor or a lawyer is not to simply pursue a vocation it is to master life or the law.
These considerations are directly related to the study of art and design in several ways. First, design education has historically been denigrated as a form of vocational education or as a vocational alternative to Fine Art education. Second, design has been affiliated, both internally and externally, with empirical methods of research. Design education has thus stood at a remove from cultural study and it has done so rather willfully.
This dialectical relationship – in which the contemplation of Fine Art equals freedom and the consumption of design equals oppression by market forces – is particularly appealing in the academy, wherein education is often perceived as designed to promote personal liberation. Free subjects cultivate their freedom by contemplating Fine Art, or so the story goes. The contemplation of commodities – the objects of design – seems counter-intuitive, in one sense, and, in a more radical but opposed sense, a dangerous imposition upon the real freedom of the consumer.
Liberal arts education appeals to Fine Art objects to instill the exercise of judgment, the cultivation of taste, which will then be available to the consumer out in the real world. It is all but impossible to imagine a liberal arts education structured around the exercise of critical judgment through the cultivation of taste relevant to the world in which we actually live. The students – who are in fact already free, at least to some extent, certainly in their own minds – would rebel. Corporations and governments would quiver and quake. For consumption really isn’t just a matter of opinion. Taste really can be cultivated and doing so would have vast ramifications on our economy.
But this is an extremely complicated question from an institutional perspective. In our time, the divisions between the arts and sciences, between the cultural and the empirical, the abstract and the applied, have become vastly complicated both inside and outside the walls of the academy. The Humanities fields have suffered an almost terminal loss of prestige and the sciences and social sciences have expanded to consider topics traditionally taken to be the purview of the Humanities fields. Defenders of the Humanities are struggling to find a rationale that resonates with contemporary culture (including their corporatized college administrations).
Several movements are taking place simultaneously.
The hermeneutic disciplines have begun to address the world of design with increasing regularity. Indeed, almost every department on campus has some knowledge worker considering some aspect of design culture. Historians pursue Material Culture studies. Sociologists and psychologists study consumption. Literature departments have new courses on graphic novels, digital narrativity, and video games, among other design related concerns: from cookbooks to environmentalism and sustainability. Fine Arts programs are more and more interested in visual culture, much of which is graphic design by another name, as well as in the history of the relationship between art and design.
Even the sciences are beginning to be directed toward design studies in specific new ways. To the extent that science is applied science it is often proximate to a field of design or engineering. This is a significant concern for scientists seeking funding for research. Cash strapped universities become design innovation engines when research can be applied. New fields of science – like synthetic biology – are design fields in their own right, and explicitly so.
Moreover, as all of these fields have expanded, they have become increasingly self-aware, and internally complex, encouraging new modes of research, some of which are celebrated as interdisciplinary. Now we have historians and philosophers of science, for example, working in history, philosophy, and in the sciences themselves. Science and technology studies is a field emerging at the intersections of anthropology, philosophy, applied science, and design. (To be truly interdisciplinary these researches must cross the qualitative-quantitative divide, they must be hermeneutic as well as empirical in their methodologies, but this is rare.) My point here is to evoke the vitality and the disorder of these emergent institutional agendas.
And they are not alone. Perhaps even more encouraging than the academic attempts to rethink our approach to objects and making is the range of extra-academic organizations and institutes that have recently appeared. The Rocky Mountain Institute, the Santa Fe Institute, the Lannan Foundation, Bruce Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries, John Thackara’s The Doors of Perception conferences, Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation lecture series, John Brockman’s The Edge.org, the Ted lectures, the Lift conference, among many other institutes, conferences, seminars, and websites. These are all new centers for research and innovation in design and design thinking. They are operating on the fringes of the academy or in spaces where the academy cannot go, though often building on initial research drawn from the academic context.
John Brockman’s TheEdge.org is particularly interesting to me because of Brockman’s overarching agenda. Brockman promotes what he calls a ‘third’ culture – in contrast to the two cultures described by C. P. Snow. According to Brockman, the humanities fields have abandoned their historic calling to ask the most searching and revealing questions about the main issues of concern in human life. They have ceded this function to scientists who use empirical methods to investigate these same questions. By doing so, these scientists, at least in Brockman’s argument, bring humanism to science. Brockman is a literary agent and “cultural impresario,” who has been instrumental in bringing a great deal of this research to popular consciousness. Stewart Brand and Jared Diamond are among his clients.
Merely adding humanism to science or applied science does not however constitute a revolutionary turn in contemporary thought. More seriously still it discounts or avoids the genuinely revolutionary turns that have occurred in the Humanities fields over the last forty or so years. And yet these turns have also been discounted by the Humanities fields themselves, which remain distracted by the illusion of total representation. These fields have only grudgingly begun to shift their form and focus from the quest for total representation toward the forces that are actually shaping contemporary culture, like design.
All of these shifts and changes are difficult to summarize. They are not altogether negative. Far from it. The general trend follows increasing development or complexification within disciplines toward an increased awareness of and focus on design, both historically and in contemporary society, without a new overarching appeal to design or design studies as a guiding thread in contemporary education. It is as though everyone were independently working toward the same goal without ever discussing that goal as a group.
Yet the division between the two (or perhaps three) cultures of the academy, between the arts and sciences, is still a serious division and it is a division that can also be found at the center of design studies as an emergent field. Design practitioners tend to pursue empirical research based on a social science model, while design critics, historians, and theorists utilize methods derived from critical cultural studies or at least the philosophy of technology. Many design programs – both historical and practical – are also housed in or with art programs, which favor neither empirical research nor the methods of critical cultural studies. The institutional pairing of art and design – as distinct fields – is also extremely problematic and it cuts to the core of our question here today.
Part of the problem is that we no longer know what we mean by the word Art. As with all things ideological, the word has come to suggest a constant and universal component of human life: Denis Dutton even calls it an instinct. But art, for us, certainly for me, refers specifically to the products of the Fine Art tradition, even though, for many students of art history, it is often difficult to remember that the Fine Art tradition is a relatively new phenomenon, historically speaking. It is still more difficult to accept that it may one day pass away as a sphere of significant cultural concern, or, worse yet, that it may already have.
By suggesting that the Fine Art tradition may have reached its end I am merely echoing the very diverse views of several prominent academic art critics, Hans Belting, Donald Kuspit, Arthur Danto, and Johanna Drucker among others. The end of art may have become even more prominent than the death of god as a field of morbid but persistent speculation. In their writings, each critic observes, in his or her own fashion, with his or her own distinct arguments, the end of art, only to resurrect it with some deus ex machina argument in the final chapters. Yes, the critic intones, the tradition as we knew and loved it has come to an end, but this does not mean that Art is dead, no, it simply means that Art serves a new and distinct, even more interesting function in pluralistic contemporary society, or that a few rogue artists are just now rediscovering the very roots of the form in new art.
Another group of critical writings, of a less theoretical, more journalistic bent, have also spent the last few decades skewering contemporary art and the contemporary art market: James Gardner’s Culture or Trash, Anthony Haden-Guest’s True Colors, Matthew Collings’ It Hurts, and Julian Stallabrass’ Art Incorporated, among many others. Again and again these writers observe the empty aegis of contemporary Fine Art under the sway of commerce and fashion. But they write like betrayed believers, disappointed in their god. Much of the material in these books and articles might be considered anecdotal in hindsight, evidencing the emptiness of particular artists rather than of the cultural form itself, but as chronicles they are profoundly wearying. We don’t have time to engage with all of the anecdotes and arguments presented in all of these books. Their existence alone might satisfy some as to the validity of the observation that something is rotten in the art market.
We might look at Johanna Drucker’s Sweet Dreams briefly as a model of this genre. Contemporary art, in Drucker’s reading, is an art of complicity and ambiguity. By complicit she means that contemporary art replicates many of the forms and assumptions of contemporary culture – which often means consumer culture, design culture – without attempting to transform those positions or to isolate itself from them. Populist, racist, sexist, what have you, the art is justifiable as art. Hence, in a way, its ambiguity. It is impossible to say whether the replicated form or structure is being indicted or affirmed. Contemporary art simply is what it is … but it isn’t: it’s art.
Ambiguity in contemporary art is akin to but the inverse of communication in modern art. Great modern art communicates many things all at once and it does so in the form of an open question, a field of potentiality open to our senses and imagination, and thus to our aesthetic judgment. We complete the communicative circuit through interpretation. Contemporary art, on the other hand, often conveys its ambiguity in one specific act. The specificity of contemporary art is significant: without it the art could not demonstrate its connection to the tradition or to culture or to anything else and hence its status as art. Contemporary art is thus often clever rather than creative (in the fullest sense of this term), the pointed but ambiguous modification of one existent image, idea, or gesture. Very often this singular image, idea or gesture is obscure upon our first encounter with the object. The object in other words does not contain enough information to speak on its own. We need to know something about the artist or about something else to “decode” the work. Only after we’ve decoded it does the work offer itself to interpretation. It is important that we not mistake this reticence for difficulty. Difficult art tells us too much, reticent art doesn’t tell us enough. I would say that the appeal of reticent or ambiguous works is a matter of taste though technically it isn’t. The exercise of taste requires an act of judgment and this kind of art denies, through impoverishment, our capacity to form judgments about it. We can only stand before it waiting for the artist or curator or some informed critic to tell us what we need to know to unlock the work. Only then will we begin to understand just how clever the work really is.
At its best, the art world that appears in Drucker’s account parallels our own world, which leaves me to wonder why I should bother with it when the world itself is closer to hand. At its worst, that art world is substantially less interesting than our world. However impressed we may be with some of its confections, we often lower our expectations when we encounter them. We are pleased that art objects exist more so than pleased by the objects themselves. In general, the objects of the art world are less thoughtfully articulated, less carefully crafted, less communicative, less indicative of anything, less moving, and, however complicit, they are nevertheless set apart from our world, drifting free from the dirty business of life. By our world, I do of course mean the world of design.
If we had more time we might sketch a genealogy of contemporary art, tracing the steps by which the Fine Art tradition expelled its critical, communicative, and expressive functions and became beholden to and a shadow of the world of design. Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and the minimalists all played significant parts in divesting Fine Art of these historic functions.
For now, paraphrasing Arthur Danto, by way of Dostoevsky, we might claim:
Art is dead: everything is possible.
But in such a landscape, the inclusiveness of modernism inverted, in contemporary art:
More is less.
How might we begin to situate design in such a landscape?
Art isn’t art and design isn’t either
The Fine Art tradition may have abandoned several of its historical functions but this is not at all to say that design now fulfills those functions.
Some design writers (Rick Poynor, for example) seem to wish it would. And curators and collectors might share that wish. Design objects are in fact appearing in museums, galleries and auctions with an increasing frequency. Design collections are expanding. And the objects are very often displayed as if they were objects of Fine Art. The practice is always somewhat awkward. Art objects find their natural habitat in the white box. But design objects decidedly don’t. Fine Art benefits from display, which heightens the autonomy of the object. But design objects flounder without a context of functionality or use.
The attempt to recuperate design as one of the fine arts requires one to approach design as a kind of representation, to approach design objects as if they were autonomous in the sense that art objects aspire to be autonomous. But design cannot be isolated and retain its value. Design objects do not present the image of a world, nor do they present the world.
The designed world is not present in design.
Design functions on the model of dissemination, of the relay. Design does not point outside the world nor even suspend it. Design objects always signal something other than themselves; they transport or relay their users toward that thing. One can approach an object of design as if it were a static image or object – as if a car were a sculpture – but the object itself invites use in a specify way and our inability to respond to this demand is a frustrating part of any design exhibition.
However artistically rendered, design simply functions differently than Fine Art does. Design does not and cannot offer a critical self- reflection of its world. The world of design is not an alternative to the world the way that the world of art was. The world of design is the world itself but it is a world that is never fully present. Design objects function like doors in dreams that always open on other doors. This leads to that and that to something else entirely.
The fact that design can lead us – that it can invite use – testifies to the dual nature of design as functional object and sign. Design objects participate in a world of objects and signs that are in constant play – exciting, fulfilling, and diverting our expectations through experience.
Design in other words remains beholden to the necessities of functionalism and communication and for this reason design objects create specific kinds of communities in ways that Fine Art objects do not.
The community of design binds designers, their clients, and the community of users of any given object through the measurable space of the market. Design objects are thus not simply commodities. They are objects that activate multiple necessities of need and desire within a specific material and cultural context. To speak of design attentively is to speak with attention to those necessities and those contexts.
Critical reflection on design does not imply a reflection on creative autonomy. Rather it implies a reflection on the situatedness of all human decision making and on the relationships that are imbedded in every object of human making, not only among people – designers, clients, and consumers – but also other objects and the materials from which those objects derive.
This reflection is not entirely unlike reflection on the historic Fine Art of the Fine Art tradition. To the extent that art and design both communicate through formal or thematic conventions with a community created through that communication, art and design are similar. In contemporary culture, however, design is the art of communication, without, for all that, being Fine Art.
All of this in mind, we can signal several dangers and opportunities for design education.
Since design objects are cultural objects, design education cannot be reduced to technics nor can design research be reduced to purely quantitative methods, without radically circumscribing the tools available for design thinking. When culture is created by design, design education must be an education in culture.
Design education today cannot be built on the purely aesthetic foundations of art education nor can it be built on technics or other purely empirical sciences. Designers must learn how to harness empirical research – the methods of the human and the hard sciences – for cultural purposes.
Flusser’s claim about design and culture can be rewritten for design education: “In contemporary life, design [education] more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.”
We have entered into a new phase of cultural history defined by a new cultural economy, a cultural economy given shape by design. We need to develop new fields of cultural study based on the material facts of the way that we actually live, new approaches to materialogy, topology, grammatology: the things, places, and rhetoric of design. Because the design fields are themselves complex rather than unitary, this is not an appeal to apply any one analytic model to cultural production as a whole, nor even a claim that cultural production can be understood as a whole. The design fields are themselves diverse, internally and externally, and they collaborate and collide in culture in a manner that cannot be subsumed under the sign of hegemony. Contributors to a common cause – creating the context of everyday life – the design fields cannot assert themselves, independently or as a whole, as isolated or efficient causes or effects of culture. For this reason they are often hard to see. But see them we must, if we are to understand the way that we live now and to improve our chances of living well in the future.