Skilling Saws and Absorbent Catalogues
By Kenneth FitzGerald
This article was first published in 1998 in
"The teacher tries to make the aspects of graphic
design interesting but he really can't because they are
- Art student's evaluation of Foundation
Graphic Design course, Spring 1997, Kenneth FitzGerald, Instructor
The Matter with Two Minds
Designers have an art conflict. When attempting to
establish design quality, discussions customarily enter - some say
intrude into - the region of art. Is design an art overall? Is great
design art? For the latter question, the answer's usually
"yes," no matter what designer you ask. For the former
question, the answer seems invariably to be "no."
Paul Rand himself couldn't arrive at a
consistent, coherent answer to those questions. Depending upon where his
theorizing wandered, design was or was not art. Neither author nor editor
cared (or dared) resolve the internal inconsistency created by
contradictory claims. To Rand's legacy we may add this
art-schizophrenia. Design desires to be art and not-art
simultaneously - and fears it's nothing.
While it is futile to argue what is and isn't art
or design, we will gain from studying the origin and operation of the
terms. By revealing our need for such terms we may move to a healthy method
of evaluation. The goal is not to "elevate" design to
art's level but to relocate both. It's a given that art has a
higher cultural station, however nebulous and undeserved. Establishing this
hierarchy is an evaluating function based entirely upon self-image rather
than objective criteria. People want the prestige that derives either from
producing art or knowing it when they see it. This despite the fact that
there is not, never has been, and never will be a consensus on what art is.
Art is all aura - wondrous but unable to sustain itself under the
Challenging stock convictions may move us toward what
Edward O. Wilson calls a "consilience." This obscure 1840 word
derives from William Whewell's book The
Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Wilson
describes the word as meaning "...literally a 'jumping
together' of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and
fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of
explanation." As art and design are intellectual constructs, we can
never prove any assertions. We may, however, establish a more realistic
foundation for discussion of our visual culture.
More than conceiving new theory, we need to identify
and disassemble the many ill-constructed conceptions between and within art
and design. Ultimately, consilience is a radical action for both fields.
For art, consilience challenges a position at the top of the cultural
food-chain. A major threat for design is to the stature of designers whose
regard within the field depends upon peer ignorance of art.
The paradox of design is that the more it tries to
distance itself from art and assert independence, the more art-like it
becomes. Conversely, prominent efforts to (re)connect design to art have
only served to devalue design and produce a legion of irascible
Articulating a substantive difference between art and
design is impracticable. In terms of forms, process, intent, causality, or
response, the activities are identical. Difference lies in the sector of
consumer culture one wishes to operate in, and the cultural role we feel
most comfortable playing.
"It is clear that art is useless, that perceiver
and artist are arrogant and indifferent. ... Art tells us nothing about
the world that we cannot find elsewhere and more reliably. Art does not
make us better citizens, or more moral, or more honest. It may conceivably
make us worse."
- Morse Peckham
"...The presumption of art's essential
'goodness' is a conventional trope. It describes nothing. Art
education is not redeeming for the vast majority of students, nor is art
practice redeeming for the vast majority of artists. The 'good'
works of art that reside in our museums reside there not because they are
'good,' but because we love them...(This) is the argument:
art is good, sort of, in a vague, general way. Seducing oneself into
believing in art's intrinsic 'goodness,' however, is
simply bad religion, no matter what the rewards."
- Dave Hickey
The Cap A, Dropped
The immediate obstacle in talking about art is locating
which one you're talking about. Is it the personal, the pop cultural,
or academic definition? The calling or the art culture industry? As
described by art historian Donald Preziosi, the academic meaning is
constantly in flux. "The broad amalgam of complementary fields in which
the modern discipline of art history is positioned never achieved fixed or
uniform institutional integration. Nevertheless, in the long run its
looseness...proved particularly effective in naturalizing and
validating the very idea of art as a 'universal' human
Transition is the requisite state. A conditional answer
is all that is possible. (Want design to be art? Wait a few minutes.) With
the expansion of what art history considers its field of study, excluding
anything - not simply design - is problematic. Selecting out design
becomes a matter of personal taste or prejudice. These motivations continue
to be the most powerful influences on discourse.
A more fundamental complication in debating art is the
origin of the term. The structure of our language precludes arriving at a
functional definition. When Aristotle and Plato carved up reality, art was
the Other. Art is what's left when you can't categorize
something as useful. To paraphrase Lacan, l'art
il n'existe pas. Rather than being
elevating and resplendent, the term is a linguistic black hole. Calling
something art effectively removes it from our universe altogether. The
activity collapses into a realm we can only speculate upon.
Those speculations are essentially mystical. Art is
venerated for its ability to produce transcendent experiences. Attributed
to art are virtues and verities that are as profound as they are ineffable.
While these art apotheoses are likely very real for their recipients, we
may still question their cause. All attempts to locate
"artness" within objects or their producers have proved
failures. Describing the art experience is more rightly the province of
perception theory and cultural study.
Morse Peckham describes art in terms of role playing.
The purpose of studying art is to instruct us in how to play the role of
art appreciator. When presented with what we recognize as an art
appreciation situation (almost exclusively the gallery or museum), we know
to adopt the art viewer role and anticipate the art experience. A great
work of art is one that best meets our anticipation of what an artwork
should be. The rigidity or flexibility of our expectations determines what
we will consider art. The inherent nature of the work is, at best,
Our reaction to art is hardly spontaneous - culture
instills it. That art exists is a teaching of culture. We respond as a
result of training. The profundity of our reaction depends upon how
seriously we take our role. Everything we today regard as art - whether
it be a Renoir or a Koons - was once non-art and was rationalized into
Art is also purported to be our vanguard of culture and
a vital experience. As prevalent the belief is that art anticipates
culture, little evidence can be found as proof. Art objects may be
catalysts for and products of social change. However, all artifacts of our
material culture possess these qualities.
The means by which art enlivens existence are a matter
of faith. Billions of people have and continue to live without exposure to
anything considered art and are no worse for it. A better case may be made
that the ex- perience of art is detrimental. It either proposes an
unobtainable fantasy or twists the mundane into distressing phantasmagoria.
Assuming, that is, you are able to comprehend the work. And, of course,
there's always a bottom line. If you get addicted and want to possess
some art, the costs are exorbitant. Is it expensive because it's art
or art because it's expensive?
Then there's the disturbance of interacting with
artists. Certainly, no one can claim the makers of art are de facto a saintly breed. The
popular conception insists just the opposite. One of the most bizarre and
insupport- able contentions of our culture is that only reprehensible
persons have the ability to generate the art experience. Though possessed
of a self-image as exemplary humans, artists are no better than most,
likely worse on average. And in their emulation of artists, designers adopt
their most offensive traits. They regularly fuse aesthetic superciliousness
with an arrogance born of considering themselves masters of their
profession. In art as in design, this conceited attitude likely compensates
for a bitter realization. Society considers their activity a marginal,
self-indulgent pursuit. Artists receive adoration from the greater public
only in the abstract.
Be regular and orderly in your life...
so that you may be violent and original in your work.
- Gustave Flaubert
The Designers' Art
Designers consider themselves creatively aware and
often study within art programs. However, designers are no more in touch
with art than your average Joan. When designers talk about art they rarely
deal with the reality of contemporary art practice or theory. The art of
the past seems a more commodious area to opine in. However, comfort
doesn't bring clarity. Misinterpretation and misrepresentation are
common when designers engage past activity. Art is rarely looked at
rationally. The people, process and product all become romanticized.
When referring to art, designers usually settle in one
of two historical eras. For those of a more traditional bent, nothing seems
to have happened in art - or be worthy of attention - since about
1940. The more progressive-minded designers will, however, accept up to
1955. What often distinguishes a conservative from a progressive designer
is which outmoded conception of art they prefer. Art after 1960 is largely
ignored, even though conceptually, it's more interesting for
The former, larger group of designers see art as high
aesthetic activity. The lineage that Paul Rand created in his books were
classic demonstrations of this model. Art is artifacts of transcendent
genius that stir profound emotion in the human soul. A masterly
manipulation of formal elements moves these artifacts to a rarefied plane.
Only the finest of design may claim this level of achievement, though all
should aspire to it. The requirement is awareness of and strict adherence
to aesthetic rules consistent throughout history.
This model is no more arguable than any that has
evolved since. However, the fact is that it is historically backward and
archaic. Rather than responding to the critiques of their models - in
other words, recognizing any of the art made in the latter half of this
century - Rand and his followers dismiss them. Their neglect of art
begins at about the time when Dwiggins coins the term "graphic
design." It's almost as if the birth of design meant the end of
art. Or that design is heir to the true, historical art.
"To poke fun at form or formalism is to poke fun
at... the philosophy called aesthetics," Rand wrote in his essay
"From Cassandra to Chaos." The problem is, art had been
debunking aesthetics his entire adult life. In his books, Rand referenced
outdated doctrines, peppered his text with quotes yanked out of context,
and constructed a philosophy ultimately dependent upon his status in his
field. Only within design could you find regard for these declarations.
Of course, Rand's books were self-promotions. The
theory's ultimate end is creating a noble lineage into which he
inserts his work. Like David Carson's The
End of Print, these books theorize to
self-aggrandize. An objective, critical analysis is nowhere on the agenda.
The art interpretations made by design-star hagiographer Lewis Blackwell in
David Carson's name supervene Rand's in shallowness and
distortion. Both theorize from surface readings. Carson considers his work
as having "similarity" with "Outsider Art/Art Brut"
in 2nd Sight. The
statement sounds learned but is more empty romanticism. Ignored, as always,
are the quite separate historic, intellectual and cultural circumstances
that brought these artistic conceits into fashion. The former construction,
"outsider art," is a self-negating term (if it's outside
art, it's not art) which denigrates, not celebrates, the activity.
Carson's "outsider" stance is similar to a career
politician claiming to be a "Washington outsider."
Rand was entitled to formulate his own version of art
history. For the majority of people, Rand's claims sound succinct,
sensible and lyrical. This is due to the fact that they are concise bursts
of received knowledge. Everyone knows these things. It is, however,
comforting to hear them intoned by the Oracle. If someone with his stature
lives by these beliefs, there must be something to them. Designers forget
that design conferred his stature, creating a self-reinforcing system. It
also doesn't hurt to write your own monograph.
Rand's theories require review because of how
they continue to shape the sensibilities of designers. In a recent AIGA Journal article,
Elizabeth Resnick describes the response of design students to a new ?lm on
Rand. All show enthusiasm and admiration for his insistence that design is
art. However, those students will become even more marginalized and
disenchanted with their work and status if they attempt to de?ne themselves
by Rand's fallacies. Omitted from his theories were the wholly
subjective and situational-speci?c circumstances surrounding the acceptance
of his work. (That corporate America has turned to designers who are
formally antithetical to Rand was seen by him as evidence of a CEO
dumb-down. What it actually demonstrates is that the CEOs are shrewd enough
to recognize how to utilize design styles to signal contemporiety. No
matter how aesthetically "correct," business will junk design
that doesn't signify what consumers respond to.) Rather than
investing in the ideas of their times, the students accept inculcation into
an illusory legacy.
Today, it is a common opinion of designers that
everything went to hell with art in this century. For many people, art of
the last half-century has been progressively appalling. Art stopped being
about the visual and became ideas - masturbatory and ridiculous ones at
that. Once the province of genius practitioners and unquestioned
aesthetics, academics hijacked art and sti?ed it under incomprehensible
jargon. Artist-manqués were only too happy to join the game.
There is merit in some of these arguments.
Unfortunately, designers lack critical substance to expose any conceit due
to their fundamental misinterpretations of past art activity. Art has
always been about ideas. It is designers who focus on the visual nature of
the works and assume the surface is what art's about. As Dave Hickey
says, "Junior professors (!) began explaining to me that
non-portable, non-object art had arisen during the nineteen sixties as a
means of 'conceptualizing' the practice of art in response to
'commodi?cation' and the 'commercialization' of the
art object during the postwar era. This would have been a wonderful
argument if a painting by Edward Ruscha or Jean-Louis David were any less
'conceptual' than a pile of dirt on the museum
The complex iconography that makes up so many great
paintings was the incomprehensible artspeak of yesterday. If you hold that
art of earlier times was "about" the visual aspect, all
painting is ruined.
Design can only suffer in comparison to this popular
construction of High Art. The ideal is unattainable not because of a
designer's cupidity, indifference, or hack status. It's because
the artist ideal is wholly ?ctional. The closer you examine art activity,
the more diverse a behavior it becomes. If it resembles any contemporary
activity, it's design.
He had never realized that he had produced quite this
many things. Why, some people might consider him an actual artist, by
profession. Was that possible? He pictured all those hours spent alone in
his room, patiently fitting together tiny scraps, feverishly hunting up the
proper textures, pounding in a row of thumbtacks until the back of his neck
ached - all that drudgery. It wasn't the way he pictured the life
of an artist.
- Anne Tyler, Celestial
The artist beau ideal is that of a loner pursuing a personal agenda. Design
is said to be different because of its collaborative nature. Often, a team
accomplishes design projects. Credit usually goes to the principal
designer, of course, obscuring the process. The determination to produce
under one person's name (e.g., Kenneth FitzGerald Design) intends to
appropriate the artist's cultural authority. When a designer stresses
that they are a "one-person shop," the intimation is one of
greater creative distinction - working like, being, an artist.
The fact is that most artists past and present operated
as a ?rm. For hundreds of years, artists apprenticed in shops, working
under masters. Whether it was painting portraits, frescoes or
blacksmithing, you weren't working alone. The goal was to set up your
own shop then make your underlings do things your way. Rather than temples
of individual attainment, museums are show houses of art direction. The
Rembrandt Project - the ongoing research effort to identify
"authentic" paintings by the master - displays the
normative situation, not an aberration. "The Great Masters" was
a collection of schools; art ?rms directed by principals. The devaluation
of works only partially executed by Rembrandt speaks more to our
culture's skewed values than the paintings' intrinsic worth.
Social and cultural changes did occasion a more
specialized art commodity provider. These individuals desired a higher
social status, as did the purchasers of their wares. From here, the art
idea as we know it began to form. However, the lone genius remains the
exception. It's almost a truism that to find an artist working alone
in a garret was (and is) to find a failure. Today's major-selling
fine artist is still regularly a company in every way. Assistants fabricate
the bulk, if not the entirety, of pieces. They stretch the canvas, paint
the content, then wash the Range Rover. It's a plum job for aspiring
artists, and has been for centuries.
In process, art is like design is like fashion is like
scientific research is like most human activity: the labor of many to the
glori?cation of one. The solitary creator myth, however, still dominates
inside and out of the art world. I remember my disdain when, as an art
school undergraduate, I first read of an artist's assistants. This
pseudo-revelation is regularly roto-tilled up by the popular media as an
exposé of contemporary art avarice and hypocrisy. My
naïveté resulted from the reinforcing art school indoctrination
and a wholly visual de?nition of art activity. The dissimulation lies with
our culture. We demand mass commodities with the aura of exclusivity.
Alternating, and often mixed, with the Great Master
model is one inspired by the heroic artists of abstract expressionism:
Pollock, de Kooning. These American (native or adopted) painters wrested
the art world from European dominance in the 1950s. Combined with the
lust-for-life archetype of the late 19th century (Van Gogh, Gaugin, et
al.), the artist became a tormented soul. Art now was an intensely personal
self-investigation of the psyche. Artists make art to purge their demons.
It is a representation shared widely within our culture, though the
movement was brief and problematic. Designers, for all their claims of
practicality, buy into the romance. They either play against it to assert
their creative sobriety, or conjure its spirit to siphon off artistic aura.
The Big Express
The ultimate artistic license is personal expression.
Designers will be forever distinct from artists because they must present
someone else's message. To free themselves from corporate/modernist
shackles, designers strive to inject their own personality into their work.
At this year's Fuse98 conference, Erik Spiekermann received a round of
applause for stating he designed to solve his clients' problems, not
his own. He offered the comment while reviewing presentations by other
designers whose speculative nature he saw as bordering on the artistic.
("Artistic" meaning, in this context, impractical and useless.)
On the latter side, Lewis Blackwell again imparts David
Carson with the legacy of the rebel Americans. In 2nd Sight, Blackwell explains of Carson,
"He doesn't go to a psychoanalyst to express himself - he
designs." Here Blackwell attempts to link Carson with Big Art while
disparaging critics who have read something other than The End of Print. Of course, Pollock
painted and went
to the psychoanalyst.
This idea of self-expressiveness permeates
design's conception of art. Within art, dispute of the rhetoric of
expressionism came soon after its inception. Once more, design seems bent
on rearguing constructs art moved beyond decades ago.
In The Expressive Fallacy, Hal Foster demonstrates expressionism to be just another
fabrication. "(E)xpressionism is a paradox: a type of representation
that asserts presence - of the artist, of the real. This presence is by
proxy only (the expressive marks of the artist, the indexical traces of the
hand), and yet it is easy to fall into the fallacy: for example, we
commonly say an expressionist like Kandinsky 'broke through'
representation, when in fact he replaced (or superimposed) one form with
another - a representation oriented not to reality (the coded, realist
outer world) but to expression (the coded, symbolist inner world). After
all, formlessness does not dissolve convention or suspend mediation; as the
expressionist trope for feeling, it is a rhetorical form too."
As examples of the artistic reaction against
expressionism, Foster details a succession of painters beginning with
Jasper Johns (Target with Plaster Casts) in 1955, to Roy Lichtenstein (his
brushstroke paintings), and, more recently, Gerhard Richter. In other art
media, self-expression acts primarily as a conceit to work against. As we
draw closer to contemporary times, artwork in form and concerns move closer
to design, and, ?nally, art must coexist with design to have import. Foster
cites Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin's artist book Eating Friends, which
"debunks" expression with a literal obsession with "inner
life": texts and images (the stuff graphic design is made of),
focusing on internal organs.
Still, designers regularly travel extended rhetorical
distances in form to arrive at art. Usually, designers aspire to
painting - the traditional art medium. Frequently, designers express a
desire to "paint with type." The implication is of scattering
letterforms as expressively and directly as Pollock splattered enamel on
canvas. However, as Foster points out above, the process of abstract
painters is just as intentional as representational painters. The gestural,
immediate style of painting is merely a point in the artistic continuum.
Deliberate, systematized painting routines - ones that resemble common
typographical practice - have been the dominant method. If you
can't ?nd a painting approach that matches your design process, you
haven't looked hard enough. The aspiration to type-paint is less a
desired working method than another longing for artistic legitimacy.
Self-expression stands as another attempt to signify
truth through formal means alone. For design, however, the effort is
ironic. Expressionism long ago became a language appropriated by consumer
culture. As Foster suggests, "...we must open up (expressionism) to
include the expressionist rhetoric of psychology and consumerist society in
general. Express yourself, we are exhorted - but only via the type,
only via the commodity." Striving to elude
"commodi?cation" through self-expression, designers charge
head?rst into its maw. Meanwhile, the expressionist desire to create a
public, formal language was likely usurped by design. Culture has for a
time de?ned itself through mass media: the realm of design.
The point being made here is not that one must be
absolutely contemporary in their art metaphors. The past should be neither
venerated nor rejected. The issue is that designers continue to work from a
romantic ideal of art. Rather than construct a relevant model for their
activity, designers orbit a hoary salon.
Unfortunately, when art isn't romanticized,
design treats it as visual supermarket. Designers unashamedly investigate
art because it offers many graphic ideas to purloin. Design becomes a
process of raising movie-set facades behind which business is conducted.
What are the essential, irrefutable particulars
separating design from art? People go into design to make money. Designers
prostitute art for business. Designers work for clients, artists work for
These clichés hold up as well as the other
aspects of the art myth. It is a delusion that the activity of ?ne artists
is divorced from commercial considerations. It isn't even a matter of
degree. All that separates art and design is the kind of marketplace one
chooses to operate in. The direct evidence of this is the art world's
obsession with sales. No matter how "conceptual" or
"non-object" oriented, art can and must be sold. Economic
viability is the preeminent determinant.
The traditional estimation holds that designers are
dependent upon having clients and are subservient to their will. Artists,
however, are self-starters who answer only to their muse. To believe this,
you must disregard admissions committees, art faculty, review boards,
competition jurors, selection committees, gallery owners, curators,
critics, grant committees, opening attendees, et
al. Each of these groups has a profound and
often direct in?uence on how and what art is made. For artists, these
encounters are client meetings. Artists frequently modify how they make and
present their work in the wake of feedback from these groups. The input of
knowledgeable art insiders is craved, not scorned.
The notion that art is an "anything-goes"
zone is misinformed. Straying too far from well-delineated boundaries is
hazardous for artists. The ?eld is broad, but often shallow. To gain
recognition as an artist, it is incumbent to exhibit regularly in approved
forums. Critical recognition requires ?rst being seen. This means you must
please people, particularly, gallery owners. If they are to be at all
successful, gallery owners must make a basic economic decision about art.
Will it sell?
Sales are evidently not a requirement to be an artist.
If it was, we must remove the majority of practitioners from the canon. The
large number of artists successful in their time but ignored in
contemporary estimation complicates the situation. Unless we are ready to
accept that unseen creations are artworks (just as anything done in type
and image can be design), we must acknowledge that art is mediated by
forces exterior to the artist. Every artist must face the reality that the
surest way for their labor to be considered art is to attach a high price
tag to it.
Historically, artworks have always functioned as
commodities. Finding clients has concerned artists throughout history.
Jacques-Louis David resented having to accept portrait commissions. The
historic epics he preferred to paint, however, couldn't ?nd a
clientele. Art was born of the marketplace, as was design. Design was
merely a new product line.
Brian O'Doherty takes a scathing look at the
"art industry" in Inside the White
Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. The
gallery is a showroom ?oor, displaying manufacturers' latest models.
"For many of us, the gallery space still gives off negative
vibrations when we wander in. Esthetics is turned into a kind of social
elitism - the gallery space is exclusive. Isolated in plots of space,
what is on display looks a bit like valuable scarce goods, jewelry, or
silver: esthetics are turned into commerce - the gallery space is
expensive. What it contains is, without mediation, well-nigh
incomprehensible - art is dif?cult. Exclusive audience, rare objects
dif?cult to comprehend - here we have a social, ?nancial, and
intellectual snobbery which models (and at its worst parodies) our system
of limited production, our modes of assigning values, our social habits at
large. Never was a space, designed to accommodate the prejudices and
enhance the self-image of the upper middle classes, so ef?ciently codi?ed.
"The classic modernist gallery is the limbo
between studio and living room, where the conventions of both meet on a
carefully neutralized ground. There the artist's respect for
what he has invented is perfectly superimposed on the bourgeois desire for
possession. For a gallery is, in the end, a place to sell
things - which is O.K."
The modernist gallery didn't transform art into
commodity. It was always in that state. Like the illusory neutral grid, the
gallery is an ideological space - and receptive to commerce. Willingly
complicit is the artist. O'Doherty writes, "The economic model
in place for a hundred years...is product, ?ltered through galleries,
offered to collectors and public institutions, written about in magazines
partially supported by the galleries, and drifting towards the academic
apparatus that stabilizes 'history' - certifying much as
banks do, the holding of its major repository, the museum. History in art
is, ultimately, worth money. Thus do we get not the art we deserve but the
art we pay for. This comfortable system went virtually unquestioned by the
key ?gure it is based upon: the artist." All art is in the
marketplace. It must be to be considered art; its validating establishment
The fiction of the artist as victim of these
forces - and not devoted accessory - is a component of the
modernist construction of the avant-garde. To command authority, artists
must claim a privileged status in society. They must be above crass
commercialism and defend culture. Art must be kept pure. But someone must
take the fall. That would be designers.
Nevertheless, a look at the most prominent art stars
shows individuals responding to markets and making no (or little) pretense
to making commodities. To afford his epic Cremaster videos, Matthew Barney has to up-front please people with
money. Damien Hirst conceived ?oating a shark in a tank of formaldehyde but
it took the ?nancing of a Saatchi to do it. The
Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is as much a brochure for its patron as was the Mona
Lisa for whoever commissioned that vanity item. Commissioning a work of art
has historically been a public declaration of virtue and wealth. Why is it
different if your claimed virtue is the making of a beverage?
An Artist's Design
It isn't necessary to detail the scorn most
artists have for designers. In an interview in Emigre #46, the designers of Orange?ux relate a typical story of
artists dismissing their work: "...when we show Rust Belt within the art
community they tell us it's not art, it's design. They
can't see beyond the type." The ongoing marginalization of ?ne
artists in our culture drives their determination to keep designers in a
These are attitudes within the arts deserving mention.
They relate to the way design dispels certain works as not being design but
art. In keeping with its art schizophrenia, design can't decide if
having your work called art is condemnation or acclaim. It depends, of
course, if you respect the designer or not.
As Orange?ux learned, the art world is not a commodious
place for daring designers. The work condemned as art by designers is a
non-starter for artists. Art industrialists who champion the most dif?cult,
challenging art become obstinate conventionalists in their design concerns.
For every Walker Art Center, there's one hundred museums that
can't get enough 12 pt. Helvetica. The preferred exhibition
announcement is a template design: color photo of the art piece on the
front (always white bordered, like a frame, so you know it isn't just
a design) and easy to read centered type (Helvetica, Gill, Garamond) on the
back. To violate this design space is like stepping outside the gallery,
which the card emulates. You risk not being taken seriously.
At a presentation to fine art gradutate students, I
garnered the expected response to contemporary "cutting-edge"
design. The reaction to the art school publications I brought for the
students' appraisal - P. Scott Makela's Minnesota College
of Art & Design catalogs, ReVerb's Otis and CalArts
works - was almost uniform. They regarded the publications as
incomprehensible indulgences that failed to meet their fundamental purpose.
Students expressed their opinions with a startling passion. They recoiled
from a representational disturbance they assiduously cultivated in their
It's only slightly ironic that artists are the
most vehement defenders of conservative design. Design is different,
they'll say, it's about relaying facts, information. It's
about communication. Though this would seem to be a harsh judgment on
art - that it is uncommunicative - it certainly proves true.
Arguably, art isn't about communication - at least, no more than
Artists thrive on the avant-garde notion that it is
their role to critique and experiment with cultural forms. A designer
investigating these ideas is an offense against sensibility, against the
cultural order. Artists don't like this view contested as it leads to
prying apart desperately held illusions of relevance.
Design has directed attention to contemporary artists
thought to have links with its practice. Barbara Kruger is cited as a kind
of designer-made-good. She's often looked to for insight on
design's potential as a medium of cultural commentary. While
Kruger's work is signi?cant, its relevance for design is limited. Her
works were readily acknowledged as art, unlike the magazine layouts she
brie?y worked on. Acceptance of her work hasn't increased regard for
design activity. Also, Kruger hardly utilizes the potential of the rhetoric
of design. Though she explored different typefaces in early works (and
nothing controversial in design), she has stuck to an extra bold Futura
italic since. In this, she proves more discriminatory than Massimo
Vignelli. Considering the conservatism about design described previously,
it may be that Kruger recognized what was unacceptable in art. Being
typographically challenging might prove professionally dangerous.
The artist Hans Haacke provides a crucial insight into
the construction of art and design. Critical study of his work highlights
the arti?ciality of the art/design division. In their content and
reception, Haacke's installations disclose the overriding commercial
concerns of the art industry. By denying what he terms the "trademark
appearance of art," Haacke constructs a relevant art by constituting
it as design.
Haacke - a German-born artist who has resided in
the U.S. since 1965 - has been one of the most signi?cantly
controversial artists of the past two decades. ("Signi?cantly"
means that the controversies have not centered on political distractions
such as obscenity and ?ag-burning.) Originally allied with conceptual art
movements in the 1960s, he turned to a political art at the start of the
1970s. His works blandly document "...the institutional, discursive
and economic apparatuses of international high art...." Manipulating
the advertisements and collateral of multinational corporations, he exposes
their connections to repression and exploitation. Support for the arts
serves as whitewash, not altruism. Art is implicated as another method of
Censorship and cancellations mark Haacke's
exhibition career. Institutional discomfort with the works' content
motivated these actions. Elaborate circumlocutions attempted to draw
attention away from accusations of suppression. Haacke's work was
criticized for its lack of aesthetic pleasure and for being mere
journalism. Curiously, he employs strict (Swiss International Style)
modernist design tools to attack modernist ideals of "...esthetic
autonomy and esthetic pleasure."
Art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh's Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason, is an important analysis of the artist's work and its
rami?cations not only for art, but our entire visual culture. Buchloh
believes Haacke's work "...has in fact been marginalized
because it represents a turning point - one of those historical moments
in which a set of assumptions about the structures and functions of art are
being effectively challenged (in a way that Heart?eld's work
constituted such an instant in the 30s)." Like Heart?eld's,
Haacke's work utilizes the forms of "commercial art,"
using its language to critique society.
To categorize Haacke's (and other like-minded
artists') work, Buchloh coined the term "factography."
Factography is an art form that is motivated by a desire to expose
economic and political powers manipulating our society. Factography
also attempts to escape and disrupt the corrupted art practices of the
past. It takes as its subject matter a neutral, documentary reportage of
facts, such as statistics. This form is regarded by the public as both
participatory and immediate - no art education is required to
comprehend its message. Factography thus denies the typical aesthetic
concerns of art and invites challenge as an art practice.
Haacke's works frequently simulate corporate PR.
Billboards and advertisements are restructured with corporate design
precision. Through these simulations, the photographic and textual
inversions have great impact. The bland straightforwardness becomes highly
charged in ways a more adventurous design could not. An infamous censored
work, Manet-PROJECT '74, is chilling in its simplicity. The rejected installation would
have displayed a Manet painting with ten panels tracing the art
work's provenance. These panels, set in Times Roman, resemble the
ubiquitous head-shot/text bios of countless annual reports. (The work was
rejected as its ninth panel revealed "...a prominent ?gure in the
economic establishment of the Nazi government...now functions as a
major cultural benefactor in the liberal democracy of postwar
Along with demonstrating the complexity of meanings
attendant in design forms, Haacke's work leads to a profound insight
on the relationship of art and design. In his article, Buchloh scrutinizes
different artistic strategies to "reject the idea of esthetic
autonomy." To accomplish this, artists have also needed to
"...abandon traditional procedures of artistic production (and,
by implication, of course, the cognitive concepts embedded in them)."
To describe this process, Buchloh expands upon a term used by artist Ian
Burn: "deskilling." Deskilling rejects "manual
dexterity" as a principal component of art. To pursue traditional art
practices is to be caught up in their ideological adulteration. New
practices with new skills must replace what has been repudiated. First
amongst these new skills is the ability to recognize that factographic
forms are culturally signi?cant, intellectually substantive, and relate
directly to the public.
In this way factography is identical to design. Buchloh
echoes the rhetoric of design and its impact upon audiences. The conception
that there is an unmediated, objective visual language is still questioned.
However, we can recognize that particular forms popularly signify
factuality and objectivity. This indicates a greater potential for using
"style" as signi?er. Design work, however, is not universally
factographic because of its form. Design is popularly regarded as more
ideologically corrupt than art, and most designers unabashedly adopt the
rhetoric and politics of their clients. Negotiating the problems and
potential of design requires novel skills indeed.
The Guerrilla Girls are other factographers design
should make note of. This anonymous group of women artists and art
professionals have arguably made the only truly dangerous art of the past
decade. Through a remarkable series of mostly text-only handbills, the
Guerrilla Girls have pointed up the gender and race bias of the art world.
(Like Barbara Kruger, their font of choice is Futura.) Once again, the most
cutting and substantive art uses design as its principal constituent.
Through these works, design demonstrates what Donald
Preziosi calls a "carrying capacity" - the ability of a
study object to have art historical signi?cance as a cultural artifact. It
also con?rms that design artifacts require a much deeper reading.
Haacke's in?uence has already paid signi?cant
dividends for graphic design. Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller studied
with Haacke at Cooper Union. Their use of design as a fundamental element
in their factography refers to Haacke's investigations.
"Esthetics is for artists as ornithology is for
- Barnett Newman
The Pleasures of the Vortexture
A cynical opinion about art theory is that its
complexity and self-referentiality can justify anything. But rather than
shunning it, designers should investigate and elaborate.
Of course, the basis of art world regard is doctrinal
adherence, not theoretical alignment. The goal shouldn't be gaining
art world acceptance. Designers must add art's material culture
speculations to their data base - if only to chart wrong directions.
Art is a recent construct historically. The notion of
timeless objects being preserved through the centuries because of their
inherent quality is misguided. Art is all "presentism." Much of
what we value was a previous generation's excess. And who knows what
That there is an "art" phenomenon is still
pure speculation. As stated by Donald Preziosi, art history has not only
described art, it has shaped it. Artists' awareness of art history
and subsequent desire to be part of the canon has been the fundamental
motivation for art making this century. All other rationales are secondary
Art history indoctrinates students into the art
industry primarily through books and magazines. First-hand experience of
art is still rare and overshadowed by the preponderance of art
publications. Artists become artists because of what they see in print, not
in a museum. Ed Ruscha's determination to be an artist came from
seeing a reproduction of a Jasper Johns painting in Print magazine. For scores of
artists, art is a small repro (frequently in black and white) with an
accompanying caption. Art became its representation almost immediately upon
birth. Concrete artifacts were but illustrations of concepts. This, of
course, is the truth of all art, inadvertently revealed.
With print as the direct vehicle de?ning art, design
becomes the framework for its perception. Rather than being handmaiden,
design is validation. As with the show announcements, it is the design that
tells you it's real art. Art publications (direct descendants of
auction catalogues) don't support and frame art, they consume it
whole. At best, there is symbiosis.
This design ?lter has been modernist. However, this
structure is breaking down, as is the gallery framework. Postmodern art
within modern frameworks is causing public dissonance. Art needs to
recon?gure its perceptual vehicle, which will also change its nature. This
direction leads through design.
A prototype of this eventuality is Jonathan
Barnbrook's design of the Damien Hirst monograph, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One
to One, Always, Forever, Now. Barnbrook and
Hirst realize that the "neutral" modernist paradigm for
representing art work cannot adequately serve a postmodern artist. (The
"original" works, of course, regularly appear in the modernist
White Cube.) Hirst's problematic pieces are far more engaging as
graphic devices than objects of contemplation. Barnbrook's inventive
and seductive design comes closest to accounting for the appeal of the
morally questionable practice of segmenting farm animals.
Meanwhile, designers like Paul Rand deserve inclusion
in the art canon. This recognition, however, will not come in the way he
would have wanted. As art history gravitates toward visual culture studies,
attention will move toward design. Rand's logos were the emblematic
artifacts of their time. They were of a kind concurrent with abstract
painting and sculpture. Corporations hung and placed those art works in
their of?ces for the same reason they placed Rand's symbols on their
letterheads. Each signi?ed modernity, ef?ciency, and was resolutely
neutral. Rand's aesthetic rationale is dissertation material but not
germane to their impact.
Eventually, art comes down to aura. Walter Benjamin
predicted that works of art would lose their aura due to mass reproduction.
However, it hasn't quite turned out that way. During his presentation
at Fuse98, Bruce Mau
noted that mass reproduction has caused art to become even more valuable.
The Mona Lisa, for instance, now transcends valuation as a commodity.
What also has happened is an aura for mass produced
works with no original. Designed artifacts may generate an aura due to the
various associations people append to them. A personal example is record
albums. It was aura I was experiencing when I picked up certain desired
albums. I knew there were millions in circulation but it didn't
matter. Purchasing one was enough. I still experience the aura when
I'm shopping for CDs and run across a favorite work I already
possess. I want to buy it again, to refresh the aura.
"Art is the orientation that makes innovation
- Morse Peckham
"The one important thing I have learnt over the
years is the difference between taking one's work and taking
oneself seriously. The FIrst is imperative and the second
- Margot Fonteyn
Art for Our Sake
What role do art and design play? For Dave Hickey, art
should be a function of democracy. The first step is for art to admit it is
a "bad, silly, frivolous thing to do." "...We
can stop regarding the art world as a 'world' or a
'community' or a 'market' and begin thinking of it
as a semi-public, semi-mercantile, semi-institutional agora - an
intermediate institution of civil society, like that of professional
sports, within which issues of private desire and public virtue are
negotiated and occasionally resolved." This is also design's
state. All the aesthetic rationalizations and informational architecture
conceits can't change the fact that it's usually self-indulgent
toying with form. And that it's okay.
Morse Peckham ?nds a biological necessity in art.
Rather than an expression of order, art strives to create disorder, so we
may learn to handle the stress of reality. "Art is exposure to the
tensions and problems of a false world so that man may endure exposing
himself to the tensions and problems of the real world." Peckham and
Hickey come from different directions to agree on art's frivolity and
necessity. Peckham states, "The only moral justi?cation for the study
of the highest level of art...is to take what it can give so seriously,
so passionately, with such conviction that one can learn to do without
Art offers many theories that suggest it's in
crisis intellectually, but the industry keeps rolling along. (Hans Haacke
is regarded as a major international artist and sells work.) Socially, the
art world grows increasingly marginalized. Art industrialists show little
inclination to reverse the trend. Art is a pleasant bourgeois playground.
Helping to drive this marginalization is design
assuming its former status. The ephemera of today will become
tomorrow's timeless art. Design is the contemporary popular art that
mediates for people. Therein lies its power. Designers hankering after art
legitimacy is like rock stars writing operas, symphonies, and musicals.
They crave high culture af?rmation, effectively renouncing what came before
The challenge for designers is not to become ?uent in
artspeak so they have come-backs the next time some artist disses them. The
task is far more dif?cult than regurgitating theory. It's about
unequivocal honesty about what you do and why you do it. It's about
looking for that honesty in work, not arbitrary surface features. It
requires putting aside the desire to be seen as doing something
"higher" than other people. It's wanting to do something
meaningful today, not begging history.
And the best part is that you can do it with any
materials, in any style, any theory, any job, any time. Then art
isn't and doesn't matter.
"So much for Art, what of
- Thomas Pynchon, V.
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience:
The Unity of Knowledge, Knopf, 1998.
The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Morse Peckham, Man's Rage
for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts,
Schocken Books, 1965.
Paul Rand, Design, Form and
Chaos, Yale University Press, 1993.
Elizabeth Resnick, "Paul Rand: The Movie," AIGA Journal of Graphic Design,
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1998.
Dave Hickey, "Air Guitar: Essays on Art &
Democracy," Art Issues. press, 1997.
Lewis Blackwell, David
Carson: 2nd Sight: Graphik Design after the End of Print, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Hal Foster, Recodings: Art,
Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Bay Press, 1985.
Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin, Eating Friends, Hallwalls, 1986.
For an extended look at the "high &
low" dialog, see "High Way Robbery," Michael Dooley, Print, XLV:V, September/October
Brian O'Doherty, Inside the
White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space,
The Lapis Press, 1986.
"Rust Belt," Emigre 46, Spring 1998.
Benjamin Buchloh, "Hans Haacke: Memory and
Instrumental Reason," Art in America, February 1988.
Michael Dooley, "Ed Words: Ruscha in
XLVIII:V, September/October 1994.
Damien Hirst, I Want to
Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always,
Forever, Now, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1998.