The & of Art & Design

I write on the logos of art and design. Which is to say that I am going to address that which gathers, assumes a logic and speaks as it is articulated by the ampersand (the “and” between art and design). “And” is of course the conjunction which conjoins and so naturalises the apparent relationship between one thing and an other, between one discourse and an other, and in this case between art and design. (1)

The audience

Commissioned writing, most writing, is never projected into a void. One writes with some kind of picture of who one is writing for. The fact that this picture is not always accurate is not the point, for the force of the picture is that it always has prefigurative agency – it makes things happen. Options exist – one can pander or provoke. From this perspective comes the recognition of the designing power of audience and genre. Making the right judgement enables communication, or so the common wisdom goes.

Let me be honest. This is my expectation of you as the reader. I have an image of you, your interests, values and attachments that leads me to the conclude that I am writing to an audience that despite its difference is disposed towards an aesthetic sensibility. I intend to base my argument on this picturing. I expect to reach, if not fully communicate with some, flow over others and be dismissed by most whose existing investment keeps them ever closed.

Fundamentally – and this is not my problem, but a problem as old as thinking itself – what I have to say has no place to arrive. I have an audience in so far as this publication has a readership, but I do assume I have no audience in terms of significant constituency of engagement (with little to do with an ability to understand what is written and everything to do with the disposition of the reader).

There are vital things to say about design. But design, at least in any developed sense, is not a topic of general interest or rigorous inquiry – which means that it is not engaged in anything but in the most superficial ways. Equally, designers – the very people whom one would expect to be most engaged and informed on the history, theory and philosophy of design – are almost totally “educated” in an anti-intellectual culture that prevents them from ever coming to a thinking (including a thinking of design) that confronts what has to be thought about design.

Writing for the reader who is the exception is not a problem. The exceptional people are those with sustain-ability. The ability to sustain is the very core of the necessary change that travels under the name of  “ecological sustainability”. Such people are not just of one way of life, culture, education, class, gender, age or disposition. They are the people who are able to face, with courage, the complexity of remaking the anthropocentric ground upon which what we name as World turns.

Contrary to the postulates of popularism, “elites of ability” are essential forces of historical change. This statement does not equate with the social elitism of classes, groups, races that assert their superiority from a position of undemonstrable capability. It is essential to recognise that the position being adopted is totally opposite to the simple solution/final solution thinking of fascism. What is perhaps confronting you, the reader, is trying to come to terms with what seems like a leap from the figure of the ampersand in the relation of art and design to a crisis of ecological sustainability.

The answer, if not its implications, is immediately available – it is the relation between how we think and how we act, for both thinking and action are designed by the way language designs the relationality of the two. The very agency of language is embedded in the structures that most rapidly pass us by – for example, prepositions and conjunctions have the imperceptible ability and force to govern the ungovernable and connect the unconnectable.

Finally, one can never tell when and where words fall. Writing in the wrong place can turn out to be the right place.

The task

The task at hand is twofold: first is the acknowledgment of something specific which is projected as if it were general; and second is the erasure of the agency of the ampersand.

Task one requires both naming and exemplification.

On naming: the placement of the “and” between art and design has acted to project an affinity and to totalise difference. A compound object arrives by one being brought to the other. A single register that appears to facilitate fusion is assumed. This fusion is increasingly not the case, although there are instances where the discourses do connect. These instances are mostly when art instrumentally employs a design practice (for example, when printmaking and typography are brought together), or when an aesthetically based design practice aspires to reclassify itself as art; for example, and leaving the significant question of craft aside – in areas like fashion and furniture design.

Historically the transcendent design practice has been architecture; but architecture itself has not retained its hegemonic form; which is to say that the very nature of architecture has changed. Such change has included a break with its traditional dependence upon structures.

Architecture now resides, roams and makes in its deconstructed ruins. It is not that architecture is over, neither is it that good architecture is no longer possible; rather, it is that architecture is going nowhere within the prescriptive frameworks that once secured its foundations. Irrespective of the afterlife of the voices of modernism, architecture no longer has a telos. This has little to do with the assumed historical progression of architectural style. It has everything to do with contemporary imperatives, including the sign function of architecture in corporate and transnational culture and the need for the delivery of ecological sustainability - which is something that cannot be simply inscribed into ways of making and using a world of object and artifice. Architecture could be seen to have the potential to move towards an active relationality which centres on a remaking of the relation of a vast range of design practices (materials, products, constructional methods, manufacture, services etc). All of this indicates turning architecture and design towards supporting ongoing processes. Conversely, it turns practices away from product and the sufficiency of aesthetic claim.

It can be argued that architecture now is enfolding an understanding of design that reduces it to functionality of neither process, form nor function. Design will be returned to in a moment.

Task two: (the erasure of the ampersand) is conducted in the substance of all that will now be written. Of course conducting this erasure does not naively expect the triggering of a causal chain. It does believe, however, in the environment which is language, that it is appropriate to posit a faith in contamination and mutation having positive as well as negative potentiality for the creation of conditions of sustainability. In far simpler, and more general terms, sustainability is always a play of destruction and creation. To date, human cultures have mostly learnt to destroy and create without insight or responsibility. Neither have attained the status of sustainable arts.

And Art
No attempt is going to be made here to synthesise art, its history and meaning. However, a few metaphorical lines in the sand will be drawn.

The first line is a mark of prejudice. As Hans-Georg Gadamer explored with insight, one does not function without prejudice. What is at issue is the character and consequence of this condition. What is written is always prejudicial. In this respect, design is not being treated as an equal to 'art'. Art is posited as a debased term beyond recovery. This view rests upon a critique but it also collides with views that would not normally be exposed (eg., a dislike of the mostly inarticulate quality of artists' utterings, the dishonesty of their cultural elevation, their claim of the object as expressive substitute for expressed thought, the intellectually restrictive quality and indulgences of art world culture, the bogus claim of the premium on creativity that artists and arts schools project, the parasitic nature of art criticism, the crass and insincere qualities of art world culture, the poverty of the experience of working among some of this country's leading art historians, the art world's half-baked take up of theory, the irresponsibility with which cultures are stolen from, the error of the attachment to representation, the concealment of the emotionalism of art as a therapeutic attachment - here is the historicity of the substance out of which this/my prejudice arrives).

Art has been made the enemy of art.

The fundamental divide is between art as, for example, the unrepresentable, ineffable and sublime and its available presence as a nominalist entity, an institutionally constructed discourse and commodity. Of the former it is possible to say nothing sensible, if art is then it simply is. 'It' certainly is not reducible to an ethnocentric statement to the effect that all cultures make art - for what 'we' call 'art' is an ethnocentric classification - the only universal is that all cultures make both materially and symbolically. Any generalisation of the meaning of the made can only arrive by imposition (c.f. Eurocentrism , including the history of art, which, in turn, includes art's invention of 'primitivism').(2)

Two endings of art are appropriate to introduce into the argument.

First art's own nemesis can be noted. To put in schematic form, modernism's project in the 20th Century was to constantly expand the category art. From Duchamp to Rauschenberg the project was to overdetermine the object as an inscribed expressive form by a discursive practice whereby significance/signification was posited by naming rather than by crafted making. The power of the subject 'artist', and the attempt to question the ontological nature of art, was thus given status well above artifice. So while conceptual art had its own historical moment its actual presence was far more invasive and powerful in dematerialising commodified art. Postmodernism, in this context arrived as an ongoing accumulative moment over the 20th Century until it reached its hegemonic apotheosis - the full realisation of modernism's ability to make anything art. In this situation art could be no more than an institutional enframing - a stamp of approval given by an accredited artist, gallery or museum. The full fabrication of the meaning of art was thus rendered meaning-less by the very instruments of its validation. Design arrives here as the paragon that enacted the enframing - the inscriptive form of the materiality of the house of art, the text and appearance of the catalogue or monograph, promotional materials, the television documentary, are all combined to evaporate the aura of art in the passage from the original to the mechanically and then electronically reproduced idiom. The question is not whether art exists or not, but rather that the object, image or word is always managed by design. Art and design here has been displaced with art by design.

The increasing popularity of art, within the remit of tourism, says nothing about art but everything about design, marketing, tourism and boredom (being somewhere and having to pass time by visiting those checklisted places that stereotypically describe the location and fuel a narrative that evidences the experience of the place of travel).

Art has an ecology of signs and these are not signs of life.

And Design
Design is another and not unproblematic story.

An understanding of the importance of design has yet to be recognised and yet to be written. Moreover, to understand design requires that we do not begin with the familiar.

A place to start is by reviewing design's ontological status, by asking :

- what it is and what it does;
- what it is made to be;
- what it has done;
- and what it needs to do

This listing can be rewritten as a review of design as: mind; practice/product; crisis; and sustainability.

MIND (what it is and what it does): Design is a quality of mind and as such has been implicit in the rise (and perhaps fall) of humanity. As this, it delivers prefiguration and direction. Being human has meant being ahead of the world of one's being as a being of world creation. We never leave the world as we find it, and the change we create, when we set out to create change, includes both a taking of an element of one's world into one's being, using it as a figure of imagination and prefiguring one's action with the product of the action. This is of course played out in a vast array of difference.

Repeating, in a modified form: design, phenomenally, is everywhere where human mind is and intentionally acts. However, what is constitutive of our being and what our being constitutes can but exist within a (hermeneutic) circling. What this means is that while 'we' design what we design, what is already designed has designed us and our designing. From this perspective the future is always already in the past. Nothing is ever finished, the product is never complete, never still. We cannot break free of our designed limits for design is always process. Design is always an articulation between subject and object, world and beings, past and future.

The PRACTICE and PRODUCT of design is both a presence and a forgetting of design. Design has been repressed as a quality of mind and converted into a division of knowledge and practice. The consequence of this double movement of repression/expression is that design has a visibility and invisibility. As a visibility it appears in the difference, the fragmentation of design practices and their objects. Here we hit the familiar specialisms: architecture, industrial design, graphics, fashion and so on. That our perception of design has largely come from associating design with the activities and outcomes of professional designers has concealed the fact that we are all designers. This construction has negated an understanding of what begs to be understood, which is what design is and does (no discipline, especially the intellectually heavyweight ones, ever gets near the implication of this).

Design has been inserted into our thinking as unthinking, and into our knowledge of what things are, without knowing their ontological natures (which is their 'thinging' and life in concealment).

Not only is the relation between design and the nature of our being overlooked but also the relational character of the world that has been created is unseen, unfelt, unheard. That we depended on relationality (which we name in so many ways - eg., ecology, nature, system, cosmos, Being) while at the same time acting, thinking and making in such self centred de-relationalised ways (which can be named anthropocentrism) is one of the prime reasons why there is an ecological crisis and why we are its epicentre.

CRISIS does not simply mean that there are lots of ecological problems that are tough nuts to crack. Crisis means that our modes of representing crisis do not make it present, not least because we are unable to see ourselves as crisis. While we say crisis it can never arrive in or by our saying – we live in an undeclared state of emergency. Vested interest in the status quo, the myopia of the forces that rule everyday life, the fractured and fracturing way that the media make worlds appear, a failure to comprehend and the negation of the designing that is the world of our construction, our inability to recognise what we are and the inability of representation to make present all of these elements of crisis resonate together. In sum, 'crisis' is in crisis, for it is yet to be known as critical.

SUSTAINABILITY - Much can be said about the notion of sustainability. What is needed is sustain- ability, materialised as the ability to sustain. To sustain means to be ahead of one's self for the future, it means keeping a way ahead. To sustain is to ensure that things are ongoing in ways that secure their being for being. Sustainability certainly does not mean that things do not change or are conserved as they are. Rather it means the direction of change is disposed towards a qualitative ongoingness.

Sustainability totally alters the agenda of design. In so doing it opens an almost total rift between art and design (a trace can linger). Sustainability cannot arrive or be itself sustained without design. In the denaturalisation of world, and its renaturalisation as the unnatural, design has to become the means of care. Care here is not attitudinal but the ways things are. It is a consequence of the 'thinging' of things.

Sustainability is directive, it is that which rules destruction and creation. It is that which governs reason, freedom and ethics.

IMPLICATIONS - speaking toward, if not for, design, an essential turning away is implied. This, in turn, implies an essential remaking wherein design is redesigned to become a relational practice (which does not mean an idealistic cessation of existing design practices, but their fundamental restructuring). The basis for the new is of course a new-environmentalism predicated upon sustainability.

The suspect and thin linkage to art, a concession to the readership of this journal, is not a significant issue except for the way it trivialises the agenda of design. As for what art at the end of art (as the aesthetisation of the everyday) has ahead of itself or has to offer, beyond a deeper descent into commodified institutionalisation, I really do not care.

Speaking for design, understood as ecodesign, in turn understood as care, I see one overwhelming linkage - that to sustainability. Here an ampersand returns – design and sustain- ability – oh yes! Now that has the ring of the future!

Footnotes
1. Discourse will be used through this article in the manner similar to Foucault's exposition - in brief, discourse is the sum of the expressions of statements that are inscriptions of both a practice, language and institution.
2. Tony Fry Old Worlds, New Visions Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1990.

 

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