As a design student at an art school, I’ve been thinking about \my experiences as an artist and a designer, and I find it a little strange that artists are often encouraged to design things while designers are rarely given the opportunity to create art. Why is this?
The word “design”–coming from the Italian “designo”–has roots that are much more complex than most people are aware of. A website for a program through West Virginia University says, “Late in the sixteenth century, the Italian artist and writer Frederico Zuccaro, promoting the idea that the artist was divinely inspired, asserted that the etymology of the word disegno was segno di dio in noi (“the sign of God in us”).” The 12th edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages states that, “The term disegno also referred to design, an integral component of good art.” Given all of this, I wonder how a general divide between artists and designers has come to exist? I suspect that money, being the “root of all evil,” is likely to blame.
As an example from my own experience, there has been little, if any, collaboration between the art and design departments at Cornish in the past three years I’ve been there. Is it a case of one department feeling threatened by the other? When I was attending a summer session at Pilchuck Glass School in 2008, there were a couple of students in my class from Europe and I specifically recall them saying two things: firstly, that art was much more important in Europe than in America from what they could tell; and secondly, that artists were held in higher esteem than designers. I agree that there were some differences in our training that became quite evident at Pilchuck. Everyone there was so used to making things while my portfolio was more focused on conceptual projects. But, the common thread between really great art and really great design seems not to be so much about how it is made or who makes it, but the idea that the piece ultimately represents.
Trying to tie this in with my Native American research, I ended up thinking about the many indigenous artifacts that are on display in museums. I believe that many of these objects have more in common with design than to our modern notions of art since they often had specific functional uses. Yet, since most of us are unable to understand the context in which they were used and the objects become “exotic” or “historical” when placed in a contemporary setting, they are suddenly viewed as art. In fact, these types of objects have had a huge impact on the Western art tradition! Consider an iconic work like Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (image below) that was directly inspired from his visits to exhibits of African masks. It was the “otherness” of those masks that inspired Picasso and that made this painting so daring in Paris in 1907 that (according to Gardners) for years he would only show it to other painters. He explained it by saying: “I paint forms as I think them, not as I see them." Perhaps this is what is occurring within many indigenous patterns and motifs? They are not so much a representation of something as they are a way of thinking–an alternate way to view the world.