Aron Chang

Casting Light


ISSUE 20 | DIFFERENCE | SEP 2012

Art, like porn, is something that you recognize when you see, though art elicits perhaps more cynical scorn.1 Being able distinguish art from all-that-is-not-art has certain comedic uses. When one is confronted with objects that are inexplicable or situations that are patently absurd, for example, someone is likely to exclaim, “Oh, I think that’s supposed to be art.” All too easy, this kind of witticism rarely fails to draw laughter, though the laughter is never one of true delight, of surprise. What the laughter establishes, instead, is that there is a shared understanding between interlocutors that art is an inexplicable endeavor whose purpose can scarcely be divined, except perhaps to befuddle the masses.

Design is far easier to love than art in today’s world. Steve Jobs is more guru than nerd, Norman Foster and James Dyson are honorary knights of the British Empire. IKEA’s aesthetics, wit, and economics undergird an entire generation’s domestic sensibilities. Design lies at the intersection of common sense and beauty, of novelty and progress, of function and delight. Design is creativity, market research, engineering, and a touch of genius. When done well, it amazes, provokes gasps and giggles, and fires myriad excited conversations. In a society suffused with irony—see preceding paragraph—we boldly express our ardor for good design. We may be sheepish about waiting in line for an Apple product, but we are no less enthusiastic, no less true. Design, and the values of good design, increasingly serves as an ethics shared across the fields of telecommunications, space (planning and architecture), business (efficiency, marketing, branding), the home (products, automobiles), and even social justice, because to design is to seek better solutions and to improve outcomes. Design is optimistic. Whether the issue is housing access, web access, drinking water access, or reducing the risk of concussions or airborne illnesses, Design presupposes our ability to make changes for the better for more people, and provides processes with which to identify and enact those changes.

Art and design are not the same, but we often confuse and sometimes conflate the two when we talk about them. This is because they are both readily disseminated and transacted as visual records, whether through television, blogs, glossy magazines, monographs, or catalogs. The iconic image supersedes the artwork or the designed object in significance, because we are far more likely today to be exposed to the representations of art and design than to the things themselves. Much as a musical manuscript carries within it both the meaning and the content of a musical composition beyond the life of a composer, so does that iconic image serve as the meme that allows us to grasp, engage, and discuss art we may never behold or design we may never experience. Because we use this visual shorthand so frequently—the visual eliding differences in purpose through a shared language of lines, colors, and pixels—we tend to speak of art, design, creativity, and innovation interchangeably.

If the common currency of thinking and talking about both art and design is visual representation, then drawing is the skill and process that links the two.2 For both artists and designers, whether through digital drawings or hand sketches, drawing is a means of recording, study, iteration, description, communication, and specification. What makes a good artist or a good designer? I can draw, but that makes me neither an artist nor a designer. But when we meet somebody who draws well, especially if that person is young, we tend to praise that skill as artistry. Good drawer = artist.3 We know that this is not really so, that there is more to art than drawing ability, but that requires us to first define what art is, and the easiest way to define art might be to contrast art against design.

There is a joke, common amongst artists and cynics, that you can make something interesting by making it huge. You can also shrink something until it reaches the sublime. On one end of the spectrum we have the astounding work of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen—mention “giant shuttlecocks” and people know what you’re talking about. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the gum-on-the-street miniatures of Ben Wilson. Art is excess. This is true in many ways, but the ones to keep in mind here are the operations commonly used in creating art today. Just as science-based techniques for shaping three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane are often marks of Renaissance painting, contemporary artists are likely to scale up or scale down, multiply or isolate, serialize, de-contextualize, or transpose. They perform these operations upon images, objects, and processes alike, and for both abstract and representational works. These operations are reliable means for achieving, if not always the sublime, at least the strange and unfamiliar.

By making too much or too little, by blowing up or shrinking down, artists use excess and distortion to speak and to be heard. But as designers know, excess leads to failure, or at least creates conditions in which commonly-held assumptions and theories are proven to be inadequate or false.4 To deliberately lose track of context, to willfully ignore and subvert the logic and common sense of dimensions, proportions, capacities, materials, and best practices is to invite failure.5 Failure, then, is not so much something to be avoided in art as it is a condition that is neither better nor worse, but simply different. If art can be characterized by excess without the fear of excess, design might be defined, in contrast, as the search for balance, the search for an economy of means, and the harnessing of creativity, knowledge, and craft to achieve function and beauty out of many constraints. An elegant design solution accepts given conditions yet transcends limitations, accommodates the practical while revealing the beauty of necessity, and is thoughtful and inspired even if it is also clever.

It is worth noting, then, that we do not talk much of elegance in our art these days, even if we talk often of style. The same excess that captivates us in art takes elegance out of the equation, and is unforgivable in design. And so it is in this way that we might fruitfully draw a distinction between art and design. Design is constrained, but optimistic in its search for better answers and in the profound belief that design can make the world better. Art thrives on excess, and unveils possibilities that are revealed only when determinations of failure and success are withdrawn from judgment.

A passage from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium illuminates the relationship between art and design. Calvino speaks of Mercury and Vulcan, their roles within the Greek and Roman pantheons, and their importance as the “two impulses” he works to reflect in his writing:

Mercury with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between the gods and men, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects. What better patron could I possibly choose to support my proposals for literature? […] There is, however, another god with family ties to Saturn for whom I feel much affection.[…] I am speaking of Vulcan-Hephaestus, a god who does not roam the heavens but lurks at the bottom of craters, shut up in his smithy, where he tirelessly forges objects that are the last word in refinement: jewels and ornaments for the gods and goddesses, weapons, shields, nets, traps. To Mercury’s aerial flight, Vulcan replies with his limping gait and the rhythmic beat of his hammer.

Art and design enjoy perhaps an analogous dialectic, one in which the artistic impulse towards excess and fancy is the necessary counterweight to the designer’s impulse towards balance and restraint. The artist and the designer are both creators, but the two perform distinct operations and are best understood through their difference. Calvino concludes:

Vulcan’s concentration and craftsmanship are needed to record Mercury’s adventures and metamorphoses. Mercury’s swiftness and mobility are needed to make Vulcan’s endless labors become bearers of meaning. And from the formless mineral matrix, the gods’ symbols of office acquire their forms: lyres or tridents, spears or diadems.

And so too are the excess of art and the equanimity of design both critical in the modern world. If art, by definition, goes where design cannot go, then each serves to define, reflect, enrich, and inspire the other.

Our consideration of art in relation to design here relies heavily on Leo Tolstoy’s formulation of art and science as the “twin organs of mankind’s progress,” organs that work in tandem to drive humanity forward. In What Is Art?, Tolstoy proposes:

True science studies and introduces into human consciousness the truths and the knowledge which are regarded as most important by the people of a certain period and society. Art transfers these truths from the realm of knowledge to the realm of feeling.[…] Science and art are like those barges with kedge-anchors, ‘machines’ as they were called, that used to work our rivers. Like the boats that carry the anchor ahead and drop it, science prepares for the movement, the direction of which is given by religion, while art is like the winch worked from the barge, which, by pulling the barge to the anchor, accomplishes the movement itself.

Keep in mind that the science Tolstoy reveres is the study of “how human life should be arranged—the questions of religion, morality, social life […],” and not merely that of atoms and cells “and other such trifles.” Even so, the knowledge science provides is not enough. We humans need more.

Tolstoy’s barge, of course, presumes the unity of a we, and I am more inclined to see us as birds flocking and disbanding according to season and individual need than as a vessel we steer forward, guided by our collective conscience. Setting science aside for a moment, I’d like try another metaphor. Design is a flashlight’s focused beam cocked at the shoulder as we strive to move with direction and purpose. Art is a flare cast into the sky, illuminating for a second’s flicker the edges of indistinct forms, where we think we are going, and sometimes even the medium in which we live.

1What do I mean here by “art?” Rather than referring to the masterworks of Michelangelo or Rodin, I intend for the usage of “art” and “artistry” in common parlance to serve as a starting point for this discussion.

2Design students learn early on in their training that the Italian word disegno means both “drawing” and “design,” in reference to methods and processes in the fine arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture.

3Of course, this contradicts the definition of art as something meant to befuddle the masses, as suggested in the introductory paragraph, because this oft-used equation requires that all artists at least have a skill that can be readily defined. Both usages of “art” and “artist,” I believe, are typical in everyday conversation, even if they originate from different places in our cultural consciousness.

4See Henry Petroski’s recent To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure for more on the instrumental role of failure and knowledge of failure to design processes.

4Curator Ute Meta Bauer once said that the artist has the luxury of naiveté, of asking the wrong questions. An artist and art professor of mine, Ed Epping, often suggested to his students that we could start where the possibilities end.