Musings on the art/design relationship…


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.    


picasso demoiselles


One thought on “Musings on the art/design relationship…

  1. I think that the divide here at Cornish is complex—it isn\’t one rift; it\’s many. First of all is the fundamental difference between art and design, according to Jon Gierlich and several other design professors: the artist creates one unique object, the designer creates something which is intended to be duplicated. (This definition fuzzes up a little when it comes to interior design; I\’m curious to ask Jon how he would say interior design is design and not art.) Second, designers tend to be self-focused. We sit around staring into our computer screens or drawing roughs. We don\’t necessarily have rapturous moments of creation in front of the canvas. I personally don\’t feel threatened by the art students at Cornish; I find them weird and interesting or, in some extreme cases, weird and kind of gross (sorry, art people), and I think this attitude is prevalent among the design students. We think of the art students as wearing hemp and smoking it too—think of them as making ridiculous pieces that are so "conceptual" that they can\’t be understood without an artist\’s statement. I\’m sure they think of us as arrogant and self-centered, which we certainly can be. These are generalities, but they have strong elements of truth in them. I know several design students who have either contempt for or disinterest in students from any other department. It saddens me, but I think all the departments are—not intimidated by each other—it\’s more as if we all think we\’re superior to the other departments. Theater students are loud, performance production students are weird and closed off, dance majors only eat yogurt (how do they live?!), art students are into illegal drugs and not being productive, design students are egotistical.I agree that idea is paramount no matter what field you\’re in—though great design, in my view, makes its impact through being seen as well as through having a strong concept, while great art makes an impact through being unique. There is only one Mona Lisa.

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