Is Design Really Art?

And Other Vital Questions

“Zalling. Is there a word zalling? If there is what does it mean? If there isn’t what does it mean?… Perhaps both, maybe neither.”

Yes, it’s a Monty Python quote. And no, it’s for no particular reason… except perhaps as illustration of my current, initial state of mind. Indeed, today’s center theme — design — doesn’t exactly qualify as my area of expertise. As such, this gripping investigation will not be conducted from the heights of authority, but instead somewhere along its gutter-equivalent — hopefully getting some sort of nice upward view in the process (the proverbial upskirt, if you will). The title question has, however, been bugging me for quite a while, and seems to call on a decent amount of theoretical knowledge in the making of a functioning, precise definition for ‘art’. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited.

1. The Actual Introduction

An architectural acquaintance of m — sorry, let me rephrase that: An architecture student once told me that she thought her discipline was the greatest art, because it had the greatest use. Well? While one can hardly argue with architecture’s claim to all-importance (is there, like design, even one part of daily life not directly influenced by it, or vice-versa?… Seriously, I can’t think of any), the preceding assertion no doubt caused a slight frown to appear on the face of a few of you. At least it did so to me. Why? I suspect it’s because of where it leaves the other, major forms of art. Whereas utility in architecture (and to a lesser extent, design) is obvious, that of music, literature, or fine art is much less so — their pleasures being in fact mostly personal, and at times rather complicated (involving such lowly things as entertainment, and some highbrow concepts like contemplation).

Obviously, a textbook on design has to look good.

And here, today’s handbook of choice raises our first important distinction: in mediums like architecture and design, the finished product’s actual artistic quality has got nothing to do with its use. In other words, when one admires a building’s look, one does not do so because it provides with adequate office space (and great plumbing!) — it is for some other, entirely different reason. Which leads to the question: what, then, is that other reason — art — exactly?

2. So… What’s Art?

On the creator’s side, the idea seems easy enough to understand, and revolves mostly around expression. However, to understand what the (successful) product of that expression is, I must enlist the help of a few learned men.

As any freshman college student will tell you, one cannot truly claim a start at the beginning without first mentioning Plato. Yet his thoughts on the matter can (and should) be discarded relatively fast, as like most ancient Greeks the philosopher saw art purely as an imitation of life, whose real value depends on its worth as a craft. That last bit is, I’m sure you noticed, eerily similar to the architecture student’s argument (above), and therefore very wrong. Nonetheless, the real breakthrough in Western artistic theory came a few centuries ago, and its most important ideas — for us — can be found summarized, first, by David Hume: “the very feeling is what constitutes our praise or admiration” (i.e. emotion is how we value a work of art), and, second, by G.W.F. Hegel: “the poet operates upon the material supplied him by his emotions; projecting it into an image for the conceptive faculty [= Academic English for imagination]. In essence, art suddenly came to be viewed as much more than an imitation, or version, of life: It was accepted as an expression of the artist’s emotions which, if completed successfully, elicits in its audience an emotional response of its own.

As such, we arrive at a more modern definition of art, based entirely upon purpose. As the unfailingly quotable Oscar Wilde puts it, “emotion for the sake of emotion is the aim of art” (his improvement on Gautier’s famous “art for art’s sake”). Thus, its meaning is intimately linked to its point: a work is characterized as artistic if its reason for existence is emotional appeal. This view is still prevalent today (despite notable opposition), and has been recently refined by the good David Foster Wallace: “even a beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e. it’s never really for the person it’s directed at”. There the central argument reveals itself: Art must be made for its recipient; the recipient appreciates art for its feeling; so art must be made for the sake of that feeling… and nothing else.

Cool word commensal, designed!

By such standards, design appears to fall short of the mark — its purpose being vastly different from sentimental satisfaction. As our available graphic designer and hip individual Natasha Sumant explains it: “the point of design is to solve a problem first, then be artistic”. Natasha has worked for the likes of W Magazine and Jason Wu, so we can assume she knows what she’s talking about. Yet in the very best designers, as it does in some of her work, an artistic appeal undeniably exists. To simply dismiss the whole field because its final intention isn’t to please its audience is too easy. Done correctly, design can appeal to our senses in the same way art does, through aesthetics.

3. Aesthetics and Design

“In fine, a healthy work of art is one that has both perfection and personality. Of course, form and substance cannot be separated in a work of art; they are always one.” — Oscar Wilde
Shameless insertion of an Oscar Wilde picture.

Aesthetics is best defined as art’s most direct way of conveying emotion: the application of form as substance. This basic concept (a nice answer to Plato) underlies everything we know as art, and can in most cases be readily understood as ‘style’. In literature, for example, it is the pure poetry — musicality and imagery — to (or through) which the author adds real-life references: ideas, narrative, etc… In visual arts, it is the interplay of such things as color, shape, and perspective, through which the artist may or may not add real-life references of his own. Finally, in music — the only wholly aesthetic art — it is both the melodic/harmonic relationship, and the work’s color (timbre) — its actual ‘sound’.

An Aside:

1: Interestingly enough, film appears to use an aesthetic combination of those three, major arts. This explains why a movie as narratively confused as Interstellar can still hold incredible emotional appeal: it has breathtaking visuals and an über-dramatic, though not all bad, musical score.

2: Aesthetics is actually what makes art an entirely idealistic discipline, a fact I noticed a lot of would-be artists don’t quite understand. The most talented always work toward a very clear aesthetic ideal — it’s actually their most important preoccupation. While reading a Nabokov or a Rachmaninov interview can give you some idea of what I’m talking about, the best recent example I’ve found lies in this (awesome) Miyazaki documentary, whence we get a glimpse of the master pushing his subordinates to great lengths over the most minute details, and all for some perfection he can barely put into words. It’s not really that he’s an asshole (actually seems like the nicest guy), he just has very (very) clear ideals.

4. Design as Art

How does this apply to our inquiry? Well, the handbook explicitly mentions that design is a combination of art, science, and mathematics: “a hybrid activity which depends, for its successful execution, upon a proper blending of all three and is most unlikely to succeed if it is exclusively identified with any one.” Yet this definition is far from satisfactory; after all, doesn’t aesthetics, with its use of form as substance (=as ideal, as emotion), already blend the last two, in order to make the first — art?

Made for a company called Bandier, by the ad people at Sweden Unlimited, and used by Muddle (phew).

In order to clear this resounding confusion, let’s take a look at an example (←on your left) from Natasha’s output: It isn’t a work of art, nor does it pretend to be; yet its aesthetics — linear composition, poppy color scheme — reveal something very important. In essence, this design doesn’t just answer a ‘problem’, then adds artistry into it… it answers it through artistry: through aesthetics.

While this may seem obvious, its implications are anything but. If design possesses art’s method of action, then a genius designer could theoretically achieve the same effect as a genius artist (and I’m sure some have, though my knowledge of these things is still pretty limited). Hence, such a designer would incorporate the ‘problem’ as part of his form, his aesthetics, and once again render its final purpose as emotion. In other words, you could make a work of art whose point is aesthetics whose point is utility (sell a good, build a habitat, believe in a God, etc…) whose point is emotion. It is worth noting that, until recently, the overwhelming majority of visual artists had to get their art past utilitarian hurdles of their own (who do you think paid for that portrait?), and design’s do not seem so fundamentally different. Thus, a truly talented individual could simply answer the ‘problem’ on his way (or as his way) towards the ideal.

The real argument here, of course, is that much of what’s considered art today achieves less than that. The purely entertaining, mass appeal forms of pop music, TV dramas, and other mediums, possess an emotional charm that is nonetheless devoid of any aesthetic ideal — beauty. And that’s where the true distinction between art and non-art should be; a genuine “art for art’s sake” isn’t made solely for easy sentimental appeal. Certainly, emotional depth (the hallmark of any great work of art) is realized exclusively in those attempts at aesthetic perfection, a feat design — a medium of its own — can achieve too, as we’ve seen. After all, what is it we admire in those buildings, half-ruins and other remnants of the past, if not just that… architectural design?

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