Let My People Go
What the Dependencies of Visual Art Have Got to Do with Design

by Oliver Klimpel

We ought to be thankful to art. The martyred artistic genius' centuries-long battles against the world's lack of understanding, the latent threat of lack of income, and not least himself were not in vain. For art serves a purpose. Namely, as a rhetorical means of testing. Charged with auratic qualities of downright frightening dimensions and with the fragile combination of an exaggerated ego and a strong tendency to self-doubt, it can all too easily be pushed into the rhetorical role in which it is best suited for the devil's advocate: as a means of testing for patterns of behavior in the relationship that its ugly brother, who goes by the name of design, maintains with it. And vice versa. We can attest, because they can be mistaken for mundane consumer products, Rodney Graham's pop songs and well designed record covers or a magazine from Maurizio Cattelan have a transformational utopian quality that, hermeneutically spoken, likens the idea of transparency? to emptiness and as a consequence tends to favour a concealment by means of the same codes and images. (1) And yet, or perhaps precisely for that reason, we wish for nothing more longingly than that a gust of wind would blow aside the cloud cover and finally open-up a view onto what is actually being discussed here.

Surprising, first of all, is the absence of a critical apparatus that could attentively address the increasingly multifaceted, quasi-symbiotic relationship between art and design. While on the one hand design seems primarily coupled to a discussion of subtleties of craftsmanship or corporate culture, every unexplained ridiculousness of market-geared art is excused like a spoiled child and at most examined for cuteness and eccentric-anecdotal potential. But whose fault is it that the once plucky / impudent court jester - formerly known as the artist - has lost his grit and become self-indulgent and self-centred? Have we lost sight of our goal while amusing us by decorating our own reservation?

The distribution of roles seemed so clear. Here the pure slavery of the compliant designer under the reign of the avaricious client. Conditions resembling those of a feudal court. In contrast to that, free art, in which a creative spirit can still reinvent the world, hindered by no one, never worried about anything, the privations of his efforts not rewarded by admiring collectors and humble viewers until the end. If only designers were permitted to be artists, some industrial designers therefore pine. If only design could be sold to aficionados who have no ulterior motives! If only creating form was not slavery subjected to directives, but beauty and pure enjoyment of ideals and narrative programmes! And indeed: the first commercial galleries that hawk to the public utilitarian design, which is easier to grasp than sculpture, are springing up like mushrooms. Of course, we shouldn't make the mistake of confusing the motivations of the deserters with those of art itself. And yet this yearning of the customers for solid forms and the form inventors' greed for asylum in art fail to recognize the opportunity for freedom that lies in art's division of powers between customer and commissioned party. Worst yet: the advocates of a fusion of design and art fail to recognize a priceless advantage design has over art. Namely, it is not subject to the sham existence of a guild that, for no understandable reason, has to purchase its entire legitimacy with its status as exception. Free art solicits its johns just as 'applied' art does, but it mustn't get its fingers dirty. In one way or another, even the most socially critical, project-oriented, world-revolutionary art depends on not being mistaken for something other than Art. Numinosity stands in its way. In truth, art is long since design, anyway. But perhaps it is on the way to being the poorer design. Because no one must notice that art is no longer a sacred exception to the world's ugly dealings.

Although all artistic disciplines thus brag about bringing forth innumerable critical minds that reject the conventional ways of thinking, visual art still reigns unchallenged over all other arts. This is all the more remarkable because the ideas of all these creative fields of work are at bottom similar. Themes and leitmotifs are easy to recognize. Mutual fertilization or networking transports their differing forms into diverse territories. Translated into all the versions, perspectives, and formulations we know, what is common to all their permutations and convictions can be traced not only to the prevalent spirit of the times, but also to the shared tools whose use has built these conceptual edifices. Ultimately, concealed behind the surface of seeming individuality and uniqueness lie profane methods or even rational algorithms. Thus, for example, the B?zier curve ensures that the genetic blueprints of a new car, a blender, a sculpture executed by computer, and a typeface all resemble each other. Some of their anatomical forms that inspiration by genius claims as its own are completely identical to and derive unambiguously from the same genetic social, linguistic, or cultural programme. Just as it was possible to consider a 15th-century painting in terms of the availability of a particular substance, like ultramarine or lapis lazuli and, for obvious reasons, the expensive pigment was found primarily in works by the Florentine school, histories of culture could be written that would trace the production of graphics in terms of the filters in various generations of the Photoshop programme. Art lives no more from inspiration alone than does design. The point is access to the means of production, the effect of these material tools on the forms developed with them, and the reactions to predominant communications technologies - in short, the point is an aesthetic environment shaped by everyone, but above all by techniques and technologies, but not by the genius impulses of a single individual newly grasping the world.

Depending on our perspective, we can thus take either a positive or a negative view of a world that, in the best case, can agree on common goals or, in the worse scenario, has merely been brought into conforming line. Arthur O Lovejoy's concept of the fusion and linkage of ideas between the disciplines thus weighs even more after our technological wiring than it did before. Not only the liberalization of the means of production, namely, has led to a harmonization of tools. The densification of networks and the increasing significance of access to resources have also given even more importance to the final financial transaction in the culture markets and later reception.

Because ideas are differently formatted and distributed in the various arts, however, the disciplines do after all differ from each other substantially, though not in the degree of their ideal freedom in terms of production, but in the field of the efficiency of the means of production and the effectiveness of distribution. Visual art has concerned itself with the question of its own marketing in depth and for a long time. Although the armies of critics valorize artistic results and take the few visitors by the hand and instruct them, precisely this production of artistic aura is their dilemma, too, and is becoming their obstacle and finally their defeat. Namely, if, to speak with Scientology's founder Ron Hubbard, having an impact is indeed the highest goal, because art wants to initiate a radical debate, question conventions, or research possibilities of explaining the world, then it winds up in serious difficulties. It claims for itself an ever more improbable role as outsider that must glorify the act of its creation and conceal its economies, and it thereby creates a nebulous status for itself that leads to an epistemological refusal. As a consequence, the issue of forms of responsibility, as stipulated in other disciplines, simply is not raised. Art lacks not only criticism, because the critics flatter a market that they stand too close to. Their lack of criticism already begins on a level on which they elude the rational questions of their customers. Art can maintain its societal exceptional function, which covers up all kinds of peculiarities, only by means of its auratization; it thereby withdraws from critical debate that spares nothing and no one - precisely the debate it wanted to initiate. Art, which has long since been subsumed by the market, but remains hair-triggeredly jumpy, hides behind the aura as if behind a shield. Its status is thus like a fairy tale. The lies it lives, the marginal effect, the lack of training, and the awkwardness in using tools that, not always, but unmistakably often characterize the essence of art - cannot be spoken of. The artist caste is untouchable. That is what makes it so weak.

Precisely this aura, which let art rise above the rest of the world, is now what art uses to betray itself - along with the broader public that has remained far away from the galleries' polished parquet. Wasn't the discussion always about the effect on how people think and live? Wouldn't art's access to the most important channels of life be tremendously important?

Because of its often-lamented affirmative character, design has precisely this access to an unchanneled and not already socially selected public, and so it follows a programme that is indeed suited to inject commentary into public life. But above all, design thereby has the priceless advantage of not provoking the resistance that art, as a social practice, faces because it depends on constantly underscoring its difference from every other phenomenon of common life that can be regarded as reasonable. Some may find design vulgar if it enters the environment particularly in the form of commercial marketing tools. But a silent majority may be much more deterred by the obtrusiveness with which art speaks of the most varied social problems and injustices, without being able to show that it belongs to their reality. Designers have long been working with design tools to overcome these fears of the threshold and this justified distrust. But isn't it odd that, here, design must provide therapy for a disease with which the patient, art, seems to infect itself with wilful intent?

The progressive and logical speculation that art and its idea could be completely subsumed in contexts deeply alien to it - (commercial) science and invention - is immediately followed by sobering certainty: 'Error, one hundred percent error,' Marcel Duchamp quickly summed up after a futile attempt to sell his Rotorelief optical toys at the 1935 amateur inventor trade fair. (2) What is regarded as initial insight into the necessity to offensively appropriate other markets already reveals the birth defect of the tactic: 'Immersing art in life runs the risk of seeing the status of art - and with it, the status of the artist - disperse entirely.' (3) The only consolation remaining is that, in the term 'amateur inventor', one of the most beautiful descriptions of the artist has been found.

In return, subversion, displacement, and filtering - seemingly privileges of art - appear to be well-tested means for design as a discipline that resides in the centre of a grey zone in which the threads of many creative industries come together. That proximity to markets in no way means the end of every utopian, world-changing, or self-referential dream is already revealed by a fleeting glance at the art world. But design must decide what strategy to implement. Is the double-agent tactic - flying under the radar of the commissioning client - more promising than, from the start, making an unmistakable claim for autonomy? There is no question but that design must recognize its own potential and the necessity for (self-) criticism and authorial responsibility, and not leave its tools overnight at its doorstep, so that art must carry out another task of aesthetic criticism in its ivory tower workshops. The dirty and efficiency-oriented character of design can be turned into an advantage: as a public action tool for ideas without prior banning in an aesthetic reservation. Here lies the path out of slavery, a path that design should finally pave and that art must first tread.

(1) See Seth Price, Dispersion, p. 26, in: F.R. David, Spring Issue, Amsterdam, February 2007.
(2) Ibid., p. 23.
(3) Ibid., p. 23.