Concerning the Political in Art, part II

The paradox encountered by political artists is that the visual arts exhibit two seemingly contradictory modes simultaneously. The visual arts, uniquely among the various arts, can be both representational and sensorial. That is, a painting can be both the material thing painted and its content (which is inexactly called subject matter). The visual arts span a wide range between two extremes of “meaning.” One  is literature, pure symbolic expression, the one art that possesses virtually no central, essential, informing sensorial quality. There is nothing tangible that is absolutely necessary to the content of a story. A book can be hand- or typewritten, it can be a cheap paperback or a lavish leather-bound volume. Its beauty and fineness of presentation do not alter its content, which still refers to the same things.

Not so the other arts. Music needs—is defined by—physical sound heard by someone. Dance requires a moving body. Music does not refer to some other thing, but refers to and presents only itself. Likewise, dance does not point to other things, but to the organization and presentation of itself. But the visual arts can be both representational or referential, as in literature, and sensuous, as in music.

It is this singular capacity to be both that ultimately works against the political purposes of art. How are we simultaneously to keep our attention on these two different modes of the work? The dilemma of all representational art is this: one mode has to be dominant over the other, and that mode is the sensuous, not the propositional.

Our experience has shown us that, when all is said and done, when time has passed, the formal properties and elements in a work of visual art dominate our appreciation and our aesthetic judgment of the work. We marvel at the consummate skill of Rubens, we are gripped by the dramatic lighting of Caravaggio, and we are perplexed at the vast talent of Bouguereau trivialized on salacious themes. The classical pleasure of delecto derives from the application of the paint, the richness of the marble, the suppleness of the dancer’s body, the timbre of the instrument, as much as it does from the represented subject.

There is a large body of analysis and criticism that argues forcefully against subject matter and the consequent captive sentiment in pictures, and for the formal and material properties of art. This is the position of formalist and Modernist criticism, and is largely a twentieth century idea. Oppositely, the greater part of preceding art theory and criticism placed a strong emphasis on subject matter. Diderot’s promotion of Greuze and similar moralizing painters in the eighteenth century, for example, rested on just this point. The moral tone of Neo-classicism, Romanticism, and Realism relied on the subject to provide the significant component of representation, that is, an action or event that was the work’s moral locus. Even Impressionism claimed to be more relevant than academic painting, and purposely chose as its subject matter la vie moderne.

Without a personal commitment to the particular issue, we view Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios with the same aloof interest as we do one of his Arabian horsemen or The Death of Sardanapalus. For me, in a similar way, I have little spontaneous response to the political agenda of Goya’s court paintings or The Fourth of May. (But I do feel a strong response to Saturn Devouring One of His Sons.) This suggests to me that certain representations provoke such a visceral response as to remove them from a the ambit of classical aesthetics. This happens in response to the referential subject matter, and only few such subjects and their treatment summon forth such strong reactions.

Inevitably all representations (which music, for example, is not) refer to the world of experience. In that world, our actions are guided by some set of moral or ethical principles. Our decisions are based on consequences. But in art, there is the contemplative sensorial element, there is the capacity to apprehend the works in themselves without recourse to the accuracy of the depictions. (This, in fact, is the conclusion Herbert Marcuse arrived at after seeing Picasso’s Guernica.) The timelessness of Shakespeare or Sophocles is said to come from the universality of their themes. (We need glosses to help explain the political references in their plays, but we need no interpretative notes to explicate Falstaff’s “What is honor” speech.)

The roots of political art

Every action and artifact has at least a minimal “political” component. This is particularly so of representations, because as such, they are intentionally edited and shaped by the artist or author to coincide with an end purpose. Art has always served a political purpose, originally by magnifying the ruler or deities and by honoring and sustaining the privileged class and its institutions. This occurred in a different social system—one of an artisan class or craft guild economically dependent on a patron class—and usually took the form of officially sanctioned and commissioned art (that is, most of the art that is studied in art history).

But there occurred a marked changed of attitude that began with the Protestant Reformation, gained a widespread support with the revolutions of the eighteenth century, and was hurried along by industrialized capitalism and mass communications.

That attitude exalted individualism and personal opinions and set the individual in an adversarial relationship with such authoritarian institutions as government and Church. By the end of the nineteenth century, the very decision to be an artist included the decision to be either an exiled avant garde artist or a traditional artist.

There are several roots of “political” art. One is found in the hierarchy of genres promulgated in the latter seventeenth century by the French Academy to rank the seriousness of works of art. At the top was history painting, so-called because the subjects portrayed moral action or events taken from classical literature or Biblical stories. The lesser genres included portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. In the French Academy’s formulation, such paintings were inferior because they were merely reportorial pictures without moral force or artistic imagination. In the eighteenth century, Diderot advanced the cause of moralizing art when he championed the bathetic portrayals of Greuze and others. Such pictorial exhorting reached its most exalted status in the French Revolution, when David’s Neo-classical civic lessons were annexed to the purposes of the Revolution.

The American and French Revolutions themselves are representative of another source for the “political” in art, that is, the decline of the aristocracy and rise of popular democracies and mass education. Liberal democratic government in Western industrial societies was premised upon the involvement of the great numbers of people previously unenfranchised. As education spread, social and political counselors and essayists promoted the merits of an informed electorate.

Implicit in the concept of an informed and educated electorate, and enhanced by the doctrine of a personal rather than authoritative interpretation of moral precepts, was the impetus to political activism By the middle of the nineteenth century, Marxist theory proposed that all of industrial capitalism would face an on-going proletarian revolution until the vindication of socialism. Social reformers of the last century, like Saint-Simon and Fournier, saw a restructuring of society along socialist lines and led by artists, engineers, and scientists. Romanticism, which theoretically was based on the same fundamentals as the democratic revolutions of America and France, placed a great emphasis on the concept of artistic genius and the uniqueness of artistic sensitivity. This was absorbed into the socialist proposals of the last centuries, and artists were thought to be possessed of a particular temperament or insight that made them especially well suited as social critics and managers. This attitude persisted into the twentieth century, propagated by artists and non-artists alike. There was a supposed special sensitivity to matters of the heart or human relations that artists possessed which other mortals do not have. It is this self-delusion of the artistic community about the nature of artistic sensitivity that has led artists to exile themselves from society and to critique it, and simultaneously to claim to be the visionaries who can right society’s wrongs.

Yet another source for the “political” component of art can be found in the development of the portable easel painting. Once the work of art (more accurately a painting) was liberated from its site and the meaning of its location, the messages of pictures became interchangeable commodities. This interchangeability allowed for the rise of the museum, the institution of meta-meaning, in which artworks qua art and artistic value existed in isolation from their cultural context. The museum in turn reciprocally created  conditions that greatly magnified the independent value of the artist as maker, and thus elevated the value of the artist’s genius and sensitivity embodied in the work. And so, it is in a museum that Picasso’s Guernica is shown, not in the rubble of a Basque town.

Inevitably, it is in a culture and society that puts portable and interchangeable art on its sanctuary walls that the utter ineffectiveness and irrelevance of “political” art is demonstrated. The “political” in art is ineffective because consumer capitalism neutralizes its message. The museum or gallery is driven by cultural interests that themselves are driven by economic interests. We hear not infrequently of a museum’s refusal to part with, say, a section of an altarpiece in order that the whole altarpiece be restored intact, because of the museum’s claimed commitment to presenting a wide diversity of art to its constituency. The museum shows itself impervious to the original meaning and import of works of art. Because it is trivialized in the gallery, “political” art is ineffective, and because it is ineffective, it is irrelevant. What political good is something that does not work? Besides, who cares? The disseminators of propaganda or advertising care enough to carry through: the army will feed and clothe and pay the soldier it recruits, the store will sell the customer the product, and the church will take in and succor its lost souls. Will an artist who makes political art, such as Sue Coe, do as much?


© 1998

Concerning the Political in Art, part I

Artist frequently-at least in the last two hundred years-have used art to proclaim social or political beliefs, often in forceful and emphatic fashion. Goya and Hogarth, Millet, Courbet, and Daumier, Kollwitz, Groz, and others in this century–visual art, especially painting and graphics, has provided us with a powerful voice of moral declamation. In modern American art, virtually every school or movement has claimed to achieve an exalted degree of “truth” unequaled or lost by its contemporaries. From the realism of Homer and the paintings of the Ashcan School, from American Scene and Regionalist paintings and the social realism of the 1930’s, to Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and other movements of the post-War era, artists have announced that each new style embodied the greater truth of representational fidelity (e.g., Sloane), transcendental good (e.g., Rothko), or authenticity and sincerity (e.g., Dubuffet).

The City Gallery of Contemporary Art in Raleigh presented an exhibition of works by Sue Coe in 1990. A very striking painting portrayed a barroom gang rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts; many drawings dealt with the slaughter of animals and their use as experimental targets in Pentagon research; and a few paintings opposed the official U.S. policies toward the conflict in Central America. The larger paintings were done in a vigorously expressionistic manner, using painted labels or captions, and were restricted in color to virtual monochromes of red or black

It was Coe’s stated purpose to grab the viewer and proselytize, to push very specific messages by a garrulous style and by the startling impact of the subject matter. That is well and good, it is appropriate since art has the capacity to be both aesthetically pleasurable and also referential.

But invariably, artworks presented for viewing as art, in a gallery, will always be seen first as aesthetic. They will become subjected to the rule of taste and connoisseurship and will become detached in an important way from their actual, denoted subject matter (as in this case). They are seen as things made within the conventions of art and aesthetics. Moreover, one profound by-product of an exhibition–whether it’s of Hockney or Fischl or Rameses or Monet, whomever–is that the various pieces lose their individual identities. Each becomes yet another painting of California pools, or another scene of ennui, etc. Their relation to each other and to other works of art is as important as–if not more than–their represented subjects. They become more an exhibition of the artist’s choices and style than of her subject. This, of course, is the fate of any art exhibition.

This repetitiveness, I think, takes a relatively large toll on Coe’s paintings, drains much of their impact, and causes them to be perceived in terms of an oeuvre. Her voluble alarms about these topics are muted. (By analogy, think of the enervating monotony of the political conventions and the dulling effect of speech after speech calling us to this agenda or that.) This has happened here: we had come primarily to view a show, and this show was unfortunately stifled by a hyperbolic and redundant mannerism and an unremittingly belabored polemic. The attitude of viewers when they enter the gallery, I suspect, is an anticipation of viewing artworks. What Coe herself wants is to make us think about these very specific events, and (I guess) to do something about them.

Because of the dulling effect of gallery exhibitions on the hortatory intent of these paintings, it seems that Coe’s political purposes are better served when she writes and illustrates on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. There her forum is predetermined as one of political dialogue and advocacy. In a sense, these paintings and drawings may more properly be considered as journalism (as she encourages us to acknowledge). A couple of years ago, Knight-Ridder newspapers ran an advertisement which showed a photograph of a man carrying an injured woman from a helicopter. The headline and copy read, “Why do they have to show things like this in a newspaper? Yes, this is a grisly picture. But in a glance readers understood the enormity of what happened to the White City [it was destroyed by a volcano in Colombia]. No amount of words could equal this image and those that came with it. . . .” From what I can tell, this is precisely what Coe intends, and what she does. A pertinent questions to ask is why the City Gallery chose to exhibit these works. Did it have an ulterior purpose? Indeed, [an animals’ rights group] solicited and underwrote this show. Did the gallery agree with Coe and support her political beliefs? If so, how? By simply showing the paintings? How would that help? Who is for rape?

Another social topic of great concern to Sue Coe is the plight of the homeless in this country, and a large portion of her works deal with this issue. If the gallery mounted the show because it concurred with Coe’s opinions, then it might have demonstrated it by allowing the homeless people of the park across the street to sleep in the gallery (now that the Raleigh city council has contrived to get rid of them from 5 p.m to 7 a.m.). Since this did not happen, does it mean that the gallery aligned itself with the property owners who want to guarantee the gentrification of that area of the city by hustling the bums elsewhere (in which case, we can easily see that exhibiting political art such as Coe’s in a setting such as the City Gallery is truly pointless)? If the gallery does not open its doors to the homeless because of worry about damage and theft, insurance liability, or some such problem, we can see that the material values of ownership, commodity, status, and perhaps name association with a nationally known artist supersede the ostensible political values enunciated in Coe’s works.

I do not say this merely to be churlish, but to emphasize the mutual antagonism between the purposes of social action (i.e., political) art and the essentially mercantile, elitist, and culturally refined purposes of a gallery. Can one say that the City Gallery offers a neutral site for the presentation of various types of exhibitions? Probably not because it imposes certain values on its exhibits. The gallery is in fact not neutral but rather a biased structure which wraps an aestheticizing frame of reference over an ersatz pluralism, which thereby renders differences irrelevant and vitiates political messages. Thus, Coe’s works cannot avoid a different kind of perception, the inevitable dual demands to admire the “beauty” or aesthetic properties of the works and simultaneously to be provoked to action by their subject matter. This, I believe, exemplifies the difficulty and inherent contradictions in “political” art made for presentation (read, consumption) in a society such as ours.

On one hand there is the visual image intentionally committed to persuasion and exhortation. Newspaper and television photographs, advertisements, posters, etc., all are judged by whether they “accurately” describe or imitate life, and consequently by whether they move people to some kind of action. On the other hand, there is the vogue image appreciated as a thing, the fashionable record of a photographer’s looking at “political” subjects with something of a studied pose. The French philosopher Walter Benjamin noted this practice over fifty years ago. He said of what he called the “New Matter-of-Fact” photography, “It has succeeded in making abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment.” What Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans did as documentation changed into a certain kind of réportage, as in Diane Arbus’s photographs, which are little more than an aesthetic colonialism which patronizes its bathetic subject. Her photographs are prized as records of her taking them, rather than for the people photographed. (Who says, “I have a book of photographs of odd people”? They say, “I have a book of Arbus photographs.”) Photography cannot escape from self-consciousness, from the fundamental fact that the photographer chooses and by choosing imprints the ostensible subject with the greater importance of the photographer’s stance.

The great trap into which photography inevitably falls is the aestheticizing of subjects indifferently given to the lens. A similar shift in appreciation happens with Coe’s pictures. As a method of description, the expressionism of Coe’s paintings seems obvious and unnecessarily tendentious. Expressionism as a style (in the general understanding of the term) can be very apt for representing a mental state, which patently cannot be described by visual mimesis. As a style for portraying a highly emotionally charged scene, expressionism can be altogether too histrionic and trite. Consider, for example, how “easy” is the temptation to fall into an academic realism when painting a portrait. Is it any different with expressionism? More to the point, a bland, banal, straightforward verbal report of these scenes—such as Nancy Spero does in her accounts of beatings of women—would have been far more horrifying and alarming.

Nothing in these painting can augment the baseness of the actual barroom rape. No amount of expressionism could have exacerbated my reaction to the slaughterhouse killing of animals. The more detached, deliberate realism of the animal experiment pictures had a greater effect on me than the de rigeur expressionism of the others. The rape picture can be understood in uncomplicated terms of personal revulsion and moral outrage. The scenes of slaughterhouses and animal experiments begin to become less clear in their moral argument: society needs to feed its people (the argument here is against, not the eating of animals, but the dehumanizing of the people who work in the abattoirs). The Pentagon pictures are more stunning, I suspect, because we never give any thought to the fact that people study the effects of gunshot wounds and take measures to increase protection from the other side’s bullets or to increase the destructiveness of our bullets.

The Central America paintings are less forceful still because they advance an unequivocally and extrinsically political point of view. In their subject matter, these Nicaragua paintings do not share that unambiguous moral character that can be seen in the other pictures. The conflict in Central America is two-sided, it is already politically debated, and it has reasonable arguments in defense of both sides. Effective propaganda, ineffective “political” art When we hear the term propaganda, we probably think of Socialist Realism, Nazi posters, and World War II support-the-boys movies—at least I generally do. We think of them as so completely committed to the promotion of a message that we regard their “aesthetic” properties, their “art,” as secondary and surely vitiated by concupiscence. We have little difficulty recognizing these as propaganda, probably for the reason that they were made for a nationalistic purpose by a national government. We also recognize, perhaps without the label but with the same pejorative connotation, the fact that advertising art is propaganda and captive to an ulterior motive. Whatever the decisions made about the looks of an advertisement are determined, not by some essential aesthetic concern, but by how effective it will be in making people buy the product.

A salient feature of propaganda—what makes it so effective—is its calculated use of popular styles and imagery. Propaganda is more political than “political” art because it readily uses a popular idiom and does not sneer at the masses. Many artists, from Kandinsky to Mondrian to Brecht, proposed that there could be found new art forms which could cut through the pretensions of well-bred society and the dictates of the ruling classes and speak directly to the people in the lower classes. The problem with this, though, as Clement Greenberg has pointed out, is that the masses in industrial society do not want high culture, but its simulacrum kitsch.

Since World War II an affluent “middlebrow” class, as Greenberg named it, has arisen and has blurred the distinction between culture of high taste and culture of popular tastes. This middlebrow class, however, seems to accept readily the propagandizing of consumer advertising, consumer television and television news, and the ultimate mediating by them of our knowledge and experience of events of our daily and political life.

One way by which art tried to be genuinely politically viable was by rejecting art altogether and substituting the act and gesture. Political action as art got its start in Dada exhibitions. To be sure, there had been political action by artists earlier than the Dada manifestations. Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism in 1855 is just such an example. But it was the Dada members who conceived of the action itself as art. More accurately, they attempted to replace the artwork with an political action. In their condemnation of bourgeois society, they rejected society’s art of beauty and mounted an assault on all the elements of aestheticism. The sine qua non became the outrageous event, R. Mutt’s Fountain, Tinguely’s self-destroying machine, Duchamp’s eventual rejection of art for chess.

Neo-Dada attitudes, transmitted through Surrealism, had a great impact in the 1940s and 1950s on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his work, Jackson Pollock claimed to replace the classical emphasis on beauty and reference to outside events with an art of total action, an art fully equivalent with the life and action of the artist (Pollock) as he made the work. The politically active 1960s advanced the popularity of political action art.and established the conditions for calling a wide array of activity “art” which previously was viewed as something else. Ephemeral art, guerilla art, performance art, installations, and documented transitory events all fell into the category of art.

The work of Hans Haake is explained in this context, and exemplifies another kind of wholly political art. Haake’s exhibits of corporate cupidity and morally ambivalent or malevolent policies are only tangentially art: what he gives us is completely a propositional argument presented in a rather engaging fashion. For example, his time-lines of the provenance of a painting, its owners, and the prices paid seem more similar to annual sales charts at a corporate meeting, or history pure and simple, or courtroom evidence, than they do to other works of art. Whether or not he is right is determined, not by the quality of his exhibits, but by the moral force of his statements and argument. That it is done in an art space, within the art community, about institutions connected to the art world, does not make it less political and philosophical and more artistic.

The works of Nancy Spero and Barbara Kruger offer an illuminating contrast to Coe’s and Haake’s.

Spero’s works, typically a series of quotes or excerpts from press accounts of brutalizations of women and children pictorialized by stamped silhouettes of human figures, eschew traditional design and elements of visual beauty in favor of a predominantly verbal presentation. Without an ornate panoply of exaggerated representations, her works command our attention and reflection by the force of the Word: she makes us reflect on what she says by saying it. As a proposition to be considered, her works take on the form which is best fitted to intellectual and moral consideration, and that is verbal. In Barbara Kruger’s works, she combines cryptic statements with photographic images. The imperative tone of the words and the stark black and white pictures speak about the way in which the mass media communicate their messages. Her works are well conceived, then, because they mimic the forms they criticize. Spero and Kruger find appropriate forms for their works’ intent; Coe relies on the handy convention of exaggeration and expressionist caricature; and Haake’s is documentation and chart-making.

The avant-garde artists initially were political or social outsiders, by the mutual consent of the artists and of bourgeois society. But in this century, as the middlebrow culture has expanded to absorb the apparent avant garde, “political” art has become almost coextensive with political dissent, with the lampooning of bourgeois culture, and with confrontational or reformist ideas, usually from the Left (because the Right ususally has been in power). Coe’s works are shown at a (relatively) elite place (the City Gallery) that is frequented by people who are already prepared for its conceptual and rhetorical frameworks (gallery as meta-meaning and leftist, generally). Such works, as a rule, get comparatively little public exposure, whereas genuine propaganda, the effective political art, gets a very widespread showing.

“Political” art seems clearly to be ineffective in front of capitalism which so effectively neutralizes its message. It seems to me that as long as the visual arts are practiced as they are today—made by artists in the isolation of their studios, consigned as commodities to galleries and museums, and made intentionally as artworks, as the kinds of things which the artworld deals in—then the effectiveness of art as “political” is at best only nominal. The “political” topics in art today are exactly the kind of topics that do not jeopardize the artworld. The artworld is resilient enough to assimilate John Cage, and Duchamp has become, as he said he would, an equivalent part of the history of art (which his work was aimed at thwarting). As long as the artworld continues in its present structure, “political” art will be irrelevant and impotent. And the corrective is not to be found in speaking out within the current mode. Capitalism will absorb all differences. The corrective is to change the whole value system which reduces everything—adults, children, animals, emotions, necessities, languages, ethnic groups, nations, everything—to things to be made productive.


© 1998

Art and Design: What’s the Big Difference?

From time to time, you hear people refer to art and to design interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. Or they use the term “art” to add a bit of glory to design work. Most of the time this happens in casual conversation, but it does tend to confuse the two terms unnecessarily because, basically, they aren’t the same. What is the difference between art and design? Are they closely related just because they use a lot of the same techniques and appeal to the same aesthetic sense? Or are they essentially different?

Well, art and design are different. The differences between art and design lie not so much in how they look as in what they do: They have different purposes, they are made differently, they are judged by different criteria, and they have different audiences.


In a 1974 interview, Milton Glaser noted that whereas a design must convey a given body of information, the “essential function” of art is to “intensify one’s perception of reality.” Sometimes, he said, these functions coincide, as in a medieval stained glass window, but in modern times they have diverged.

Design is utilitarian in a way that art is not. Design is the how of a thing: how to order the parts, how to serve the client’s interests, how to convey the information. Art, on the other hand, is its own end. It isn’t utilitarian. It subordinates ordinary usefulness to its own purposes. It doesn’t concern itself with description the way illustration does, nor with the desires of the buyer as does fashion, nor the tastes of the public as does style

We have already accepted this model in both its parts–it’s settled law. Since the Renaissance, artists have aspired to the status of philosophers. And beginning the mid-1800s, many artists chose to stand apart from worldly life in order to critique it, to forsake the programs of patrons in order to set their own programs, to discard the public moral code to promote a different code. Although many artists claim to address their art to the world, their method has been to take from the world only on their terms and give back as they see fit. This is definitely not the way of design, which considers the world’s purpose first and fits the work to that end.

How they are made

If the ends of art and design are different, so too are the means of getting there. Most of us think, correctly, of the artist standing before the blank canvas, pondering the beginning and the end of the painting all at once. The artist usually has an end in mind–something as mundane as a portrait or landscape, or as grand as the outrage of Picasso’s Guernica or the vastness of Christo’s Running Fence. But at the outset, all the options are available without precondition.

On the other hand, the designer typically begins with more than a blank canvas or lump of clay from which anything may emerge. Many of the components may already exist, such as the text, photographs, production formats, and even the basic colors. The designer consults the client on the end use, the audience, the size and scale, and other factors. The designer’s role is to envision how these various aspects should come together in a tangible thing and to bring aesthetic sensibility, taste, and technical skills to bear on the production of the job. To put it bluntly, the designer arranges the ingredients.

Artists generally have assumed that the work is a product of their mind and spirit first, and only secondarily serves the intent of the commission (to edify, to stimulate, to delight, or simply to decorate). A notable example is the 1884 commission of a memorial sculpture, The Burghers of Calais, for which Rodin made a striking group of six austere figures. But when the city fathers saw it, they rejected it: to them it was ugly, indecorous, unceremonial, and insulting to their notion of a heroic civic monument. Rodin had conceived it with his artistic genius, but they refused it out of hand because it appalled their sense of honor.

Making judgments

In 1820, Keats wrote, ” ‘Beauty is truth,truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Older still is the motto, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Art strives to achieve beauty, which is truth, which is a noble thing more enduring that life itself. At least, that’s the party line. In this century art has emphasized moral purpose, visionary truthfulness, and inward-looking integrity. Art is judged in terms of beauty and truth, of insight and revelation, of almost prophetic clairvoyance—when it isn’t being judged as text, subtexts, and social constructs. Utility doesn’t fit this mindset. Practical success is not the hallmark of art, as the example of Van Gogh attests.

Design is judged another way: “Beauty is as beauty does.” If it doesn’t get the job done, the design is considered not good, or worse, not successful. Does the design serve the product? Does it accomplish an end—does it sell, inform, persuade, direct, or entertain? Typically, lack of success in these ways (often described statistically or quantitatively) is considered a defect in the design. Ultimately, a design must fulfill its primary job of packaging or illustration or instruction, and no amount of aesthetic glamour will substitute for its failure to do so.

The audience

The audiences for art and design expect different things. The audience for art wants to look at the artwork or listen to the composition—perhaps to contemplate and reflect, perhaps to be transported by the power of the aesthetic experience or the scene portrayed—whereas a design’s audience wants to use the information to find their subway station or select a product.

Design may indeed arrest the attention and engage the emotions of a viewer, but at some point, as Beatrice Warde said, the goblet of design must become transparent, allowing viewers to gather the intended information, rather than to be absorbed by the designer’s layout.

Art draws attention to itself deliberately. Its very form is the means to intensify our perception. If a visitor to the Sistine Chapel marvels at the economy of the scene of God separating the light from the dark, she is responding to the Michelangelo’s conception, his artistic free creation. But if she is moved by the Last Judgment because of the profound theological truth it expresses, she is responding to the Pope’s purpose. That is, she treats it as information design, as an illustration of doctrine.


Art and design differ significantly in their use materials. Typically, the ultimate work is not made from the same materials as those used during the design process (the paste-up or, these days, the on-screen stuff) but of its manufacturing materials. A book is not actually “made” until it is manufactured from paper, ink, and binding. Another kind of design product, the digital document, doesn’t actually exist apart from its temporary manifestation on a computer, where its appearance varies from one browser or platform than on another, depending on the monitor, operating system, and color display tables. By contrast, a work of art makes a point of reveling in its materials. Certain physical qualities are seen as critically significant, such as de Kooning’s “painterliness,” Pollock’s drips, the encaustic of Johns’s Three Flags, Murray’s metal ribbons, or Schnabel’s broken plates. Size itself is important in an artwork, whether it’s a large Frankenthaler or Kiefer or a tiny Klee or Cornell, but in a way that differs from design. Perhaps it is better to distinguish between scale, that is, the perception of sheer size (even smallness) in a work of art, and production dimensions in a printed piece, which are very often a function of the budget, the kind of product, the size of press, and other external factors. (And for video, web pages, compter graphics, etc., size is a user-defined parameter.)

The difference between art and design is in the way we look at them. Design is meant to be looked away from and art to be looked at and into. Design graces our lives with the aesthetic presentation of useful and beneficial things, and art graces us with representations of things to ponder and perceive. Art and design are closely related but nonetheless separate. It is a good thing to keep them straight.

©1998 Michael Brady. First published in Critique Magazine, 1998.