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Design

Post #1036 • August 20, 2007, 11:31 AM • 20 Comments

I will soon begin teaching design students again. I enjoy doing so; design students approach what they do with great eagerness and competitiveness, on the whole. Unlike as in the past, though, I'm doing so at a time when my primary creative project is The Moon Fell On Me and not painting. I haven't stopped painting, but I did have to make a choice between optimizing my studio for the webcomic or oil painting, and I chose the former. I try not to think about the trajectory of my work too much (I call it "being your own art historian," and I find it the opposite of inspirational), but instead try to identify the most vital and interesting (to me) thing going on in the studio and drive it forward. These days, the webcomic has the wind in its sails.

Design is therefore jumping out at me with particular vigor. Although I haven't written much here over the summer, I've been busy elsewhere. KH at The Next Few Hours made an interesting point not long ago, that "design is coming to trump everything."

I think that art was long ago occupied by design, and not just in an intellectual occupation (the high/low arguments). As art became more and more something to own individually rather than collectively (museums and other public venues), it came to be more similar to everything else which was designed to be owned individually.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to explore this. I challenged a feminist assertion in her post, at which point she disdained everything else I had to say and asked me not to comment again on her blog. (I think postmodernists call this "privileging a narrative.") I still think it's a good idea, though, partly for the reason she claims, and partly because a field, in order to progress, requires agreement on what makes it good. Design has that agreement to a greater degree than art right now.

I explored this elsewhere this summer as well, at Ed Winkleman's blog.

Without this agreement you can't assign value in a confident way, and without a mechanism to assign value you start looking for external markers like auction prices, whether the major collectors are interested, the artist's age, and so on. Again, the remedy will be balkanization - just let the groups divvy up according to common interest and narrow in on what they need to think about to advance.

Although some of EW's regulars did their best to misread it, I think styles form in exactly this manner - common interest and competition based on a agreed parameters. Note that the agreement must generate from inside the interested group. People have to win each other over as colleagues. Only one thing has changed for art in comparison to the past in this respect: these groups of colleagues are shrinking in size as they diversify in kind.

Design is doing the opposite. Once a procession of honored townspeople delivered a Raphael altarpiece to its niche. More recently, folks camped in lines for an iPhone. I don't mean to sound like a scold, nor do I mean to characterize the Raphael and the iPhone as equivalent. Rather, I'd like to assert that for all the thought given to the art world, we have not given enough to what constitutes that world, what it does, and what remains constant within it over time.

(This page and this one partly inspired today's post; discovered via Alesh.)

Comment

1.

opie

August 20, 2007, 8:03 PM

I don't understand how design "trumps art", or how individual ownership changes the character of art, or why you need a group agreement on terms in order to assign value to art.

This all seems overly abstruse.

2.

catfish

August 20, 2007, 8:31 PM

Couldn't agree more, opie. Group agreement on "terms" comes after the art is made and valued, if it ever comes at all. If agreement does come, "terms" are sure to change because such agreements are temporary, even though the art remains constant. How do we "assign value" to the Venus of Wilendorf today? Not the same way whomever made the thing did, nor the way the society of the time did. So, if you want to make art all you really need to do is make art. Nothing more, nothing less.

3.

mr. jordan

August 21, 2007, 12:37 AM

I concur Franklin, design is what keeps the eye moving and the brain excited during the process of looking at pictures; bouncing around within some kind of compositional confinement like a pin-ball machine or a video game, where form, light, colour, shapes, planes, fragments, textures, opacities and translucencies interact, creating synaesthetic experiences for the acutely sensitive viewer.

4.

Marc Country

August 21, 2007, 6:49 AM

Is this a revival of the Disegno v. Colore debate?...

5.

Franklin

August 21, 2007, 7:11 AM

I wrote the above in haste and upon rereading it, I think it shows.

KH's idea that design is coming to trump everything relates to an idea I wrote about: "Art once exerted influence, and now is subject to it. Whenever you see art that deals with the worlds of fashion, film, the media, comics, or design, you are witnessing the cultural equivalent of backwash." I didn't express this adequately or cite the Backwash post, which would have helped. This post also talked about the assigning of value.

Opie, when a style forms, it forms around people at work on similar solutions to similar problems. They work individually and autonomously, even in a spirit of argument, but their problems relate. You don't need agreement to assign value to art, but in an air of confusion about how to assign value, such as the one in the contemporary art world, aberrations of taste become plentiful and even dominant. Individual ownership has exerted market pressure on the shape of art; certain large-scale objects, especially sculptures, become hard to imagine without their place in a museum, church, piazza, or other public space. Most people have to content themselves with moderately-sized flat work, and thus the vast majority of production consists of moderately-sized flat work.

So, if you want to make art all you really need to do is make art. Nothing more, nothing less.

Leave it to Catfish to say something so eloquent and inarguable. Nevertheless, I said that "a field, in order to progress, requires agreement on what makes it good." You're right, the terms come after the fact; I wasn't really talking about terms. But I may have overstated it. For an individual to make progress, he only needs surety on this matter, not agreement with anyone. But for a great number of people to make significant progress on a particular problem in art, what we have historically called a style, they have to agree about what makes their problem a good thing to work on, even if they contest the details or let them go unstated.

I could have stated all this better.

6.

opie

August 21, 2007, 7:43 AM

Sure, I know what you mean. There's a common aim, even if it can't be put in measurable terms, which is particularly (perhaps necessarily and uniquely) true of art. This is a characteristic of all human accompolishment.

Individual ownership may have some influence on art but it seems not to be a telling one, that is, in itself it need not predetermine the quality of art because good art can be made in all sizes and shapes and for many "purposes", as art history shows us.

The example said "(art) came to be more similar to everything else which was designed to be owned individually" which seemed to imply that it became similar in most ways, which I would say is an unsupportable assertion, especially in the context of the "design trumps art" statement.

On the other hand, if it means similar in inconsequentiual matters such as size, it is perhaps true but trivial. Furthermore, in our time of individual ownership we have plenty of outsized art, even art that is pointedly gigantic, like Serra's. it may be that the idea of individual ownership has inspired less house-ready art than art purposely made not to be - witness all the "earthworks" and such of the 70s, and all the "idea" art and various untransportable & unduplicatable stuff we have these days.

As for "saying it better", I'd say your general level is about as good as it gets, and your audience about as tough as it gets. That's what makes the blog interesting.

7.

Hovig

August 21, 2007, 8:38 AM

I try not to think about the trajectory of my work too much (I call it "being your own art historian," and I find it the opposite of inspirational)....

Jasper Johns, 1965:

"To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist."

(David Sylvester, About Modern Art)

8.

ahab

August 21, 2007, 9:30 AM

re: "design trumps art"

TIME's August 07 supplement names its top 25 visionaries: so-called "creative icons". These include (as named in the mag): a hotelier; 2 retailers; an industrial designer; an architect; a doctor; a curator; a chef; 3 product designers; a perfumer; a pair of "fashion mavericks"; 3 fashion designers; a grocer; a pair of watchmakers; get this! - the "Nike CEO"; and last of all, a ceramicist.

TIME may not have its "finger on the pulse of the button" (as a friend likes to quip), but it pretty much perfectly reflects the contemporary N. American zeitgeist.

9.

Chris

August 21, 2007, 12:52 PM

BTW, I don't think I've ever seen a reference here to a connection between "The Moon Fell On Me" and Balthus' "Mitsou." What about it?

10.

Chris

August 21, 2007, 12:54 PM

I meant to include a link in the previous post to an image from "Mitsou".

11.

Jack

August 21, 2007, 1:26 PM

My condolences to Mr. Johns. If one is going to indulge in pseudoprofundity, wit is of the essence. Prosaic banality just won't cut it, no matter how "blue chip" the source.

12.

Franklin

August 21, 2007, 2:43 PM

Chris, I adore the Mitsou drawings. Here and there you can find the Mitsou drawings published together with an introduction by Rilke, who was a mentor and family friend. Sadly, my French is miserable, but it's a beautiful edition. Other big influences include Sengai and Frans Masereel.

Jack, I was going to say that Johns certainly brought that quip to its logical conclusion, but it was too cheap a shot. Also, to some extent the notion is true.

13.

opie

August 21, 2007, 4:45 PM

Sometimes a good cheap shot is too much to resist, but the Johns quote was so wonderfully complete in itself it didn't accomodate further comment.

Picasso had something good to say along these lines:

When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must be on guard against these. Destroy the thing, do it over several times. In each destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial. What comes out in the end is the result of discarded finds. Otherwise, you become your own connoisseur.

14.

Marc Country

August 21, 2007, 5:19 PM

TIME does have some troubles covering art issues.
(I'd love to read one, just one, article that mentions Greenberg without it resorting to religious euphamisms...)

15.

catfish

August 22, 2007, 4:15 PM

And opie: that was exactly the method Picasso used to overwork so many of his later paintings. Lay on paper, paint over the paper, pull it off, paint some more, lay on some more paper, pull it off too, until it was time to quit. Because drawings, lino-cuts, and pots didn't support his workover ethic very well, they usually turned out much better than the paintings.

16.

mek

August 22, 2007, 7:14 PM

What sort of design course are you teaching?

I have been a graphic designer for 20 years now. The excitement of design has waxed and waned for me over the years. At least a decade of that time has also been spent as a fine artist exploring materials and spacial relationships altogether different from that of my design work.

I would be interested in a discourse on design if that is truly your intent. What segment of the industry are you fascinated with? What design rags do you follow? Who are some of your favorite designers (past and present) and why? have you seen Gary Hustwit's Helvetica movie? What design firms are you faves? What client work catches your eye? What sorts of printing techniques do you fancy? Are you into print or interactive?

How do you equate your webstrip with design? Is it more of an illustration project, but designed to fit a linear format? Is that what you mean by "design", more or less?

just curious.

17.

Franklin

August 22, 2007, 8:16 PM

What sort of design course are you teaching?

One nuts and bolts class and one no holds barred class.

What segment of the industry are you fascinated with?

Web, primarily, for obvious reasons. Design balances beauty against functionality and I suspect that the "a-ha" response that good design inspires is halfway between the "a-ha" of art and the "a-ha" of mathematical or computational elegance. Or maybe it's its own thing.

What design rags do you follow?

I flip through the usual ones (Communication Arts especially) at the bookstore, usually with greater relish than the art mags.

Who are some of your favorite designers (past and present) and why?

Mucha, for luxuriating elegance; Gill, for timelessness; William Morris, for craft and versatility. Present: Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, and I'm looking hard at that Bjork page linked above.

have you seen Gary Hustwit's Helvetica movie?

I can't wait. Have you seen this?

What design firms are you faves? What client work catches your eye?

I follow individuals more than the firms; that's being an artist for you. I respect the hell out of Coudal and Happy Cog. As for client work, we just hit the LA Tofu Festival, which has a great site, and I got this t-shirt (in men's, natch, and blue).

What sorts of printing techniques do you fancy?

Letterpress. Ahhhh. And serigraphy.

How do you equate your webstrip with design?

It's primarily an illustration project, but has a fiction/poetry/memoir component and a design component as well. I hack the html and css, and on a couple of them used Python to generate the code. It's also possible to manipulate the narrative using layout (see A solace of ripe plums) which turns design into a syntactical device, and I'm looking forward to playing with that. Even in the linear pieces there's spacing, whitespace, font, and font color to consider.

How about you?

18.

opie

August 23, 2007, 4:38 AM

"usually with greater relish than the art mags"

Of course, for the same reason the Science section of the NY Times is more interesting than the Art section. Something real is going on.

19.

FRC

August 23, 2007, 7:13 AM

I was just in the letterpress shop yesterday
& I'm also planning to a add a foil stamp on an
existing package...

Foil stamping is hot!

20.

mek

August 23, 2007, 8:33 PM

4U Franklin, here's my design-related plug-fest, which includes various associates, design that has my handprint, & mis cellany.

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