Since the early days of Madison avenue advertising in the late 50’s, design has been on the ascendency in America. I make this statement with a caveat. You will notice that I have not used the words “great” or “good” as I make this declarative, but merely that design as principal, primarily I will argue, as a replacement for art and interpersonal interaction, has become a dominant paradigm of modern American living.
Design arguably achieved it’s first global place of importance with the creation of Bauhaus. Industrial processes had created mass production, shifting the preciousness of objects away from hand-crafted to designed. An individual could create a model, or maquette and that becomes the original to so many mass-produced dopplegangers. Everyone can have an original and in turn everyone wanted one. As post-war America emerged unscathed from the ravages of WW II, a new society hungry for the meaningfulness of art/craft witnessed in Europe, yet now destroyed was desired. A new found wealth combined with industrial processes to build the largest consumer society the world has ever known. So much so, today we consume 24% of the world’s energy while constituting only 5% of the its population. We drive one-third of the world’s automobiles and drive as many miles as the rest of the world combined. This decentralized and detached consumption is only possible with the leverage of high design. The ubiquity of branding or as Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi calls it; Lovemarking, has created inextricable connection between buying objects and emotional attachment. The brand is the story which supports the desired objects. It is the faux meaning behind that which has none.
This idea of the designed being the most important cultural enterprise, has surpassed art-making in its dominance. The vast majority of middle class Americans would much prefer to own an iPhone 4 or iPad over an original work of art. In fact, if you take the mini-computer that those objects are (as well as Droids, Blackberry’s, et.al.) one could argue that everyone is both coveting high design over original art, and everyone is playing at being an artist. Wether it’s the Hipstamatic app or David Hockney’s horrifying iPhone paintings, everyone now believes they have what it takes to make original works of art, without having to be terribly original. This is the rise of the amateur, an ironic gesture that designers fail to see will be the death of high design as well. In fact, with templated websites and cheap computers, it already has. In the past (and in some cases like stereos and cars, still today) high-design came at a price. Anyone could own cheap knock-off’s of high-design objects or devices but few actually had originals like Leica camera’s or Mont Blanc Pens. Now, for a two-year contract and a mere $200 you can own one of the most powerful and coveted designs in the world, and iPhone. This is why Jonathan Ive, Apple’s SVP of Industrial Design is worth more than $36m, he has made an object as sexy as a human being.
The next time you’re around your 4 year old, or borrow a friend’s or neighbor’s if you don’t have one handy, try handing them your iPhone and see how long it takes them to learn to navigate it? My friend’s 4.5 year old child Esme, was navigating and infatuated with an iPhone when she was a mere two years old. Now she teaches me how to use certain options on it. What is this doing to a future generation of citizens of the world? Are we looking at a future that will be highly interactive and bounce high design firmly back into the lap of a new kind of art, or are we looking at a future society of narcissists who feign human interaction for the electronic prisons of sexy devices? Will museums and galleries become obsolete, replaced by electronic virtual interfaces, destroying forever the 30,000 year old art of painting? Will we care more about coveted objects than we do about original works of art?
Design is at its core separate and distinct from art making because it serves a purpose. Utility is the foundation of all design, no matter how elegant, high-minded or beautiful. A Lamborghini Aventador still has to deliver a driving experience and get you from A to B, no matter its design. An Droid X needs to deliver a panoply of services from Angry Birds to Google Maps and it has to be a telephone. In fact, what makes Jonathan Ive so damn good is that he is a master at combining utility with erotic desire. We have grown up in the the machine age and younger generations are so full immersed in the high design of today’s consumerism they have no other reference points. The idea of objects, such as works of art being one-off’s will seem down right quaint to future generations. When we look at the work of Donald Judd’s carefully machined boxes or Roxy Paine’s PMU (Painting Manufacturing Unit) we see insights into design overtaking fine art. Even painting has been turned into mere graphical platforms after Warhol made silkscreening the prototypical form of what now constitutes the work of artists like Ryan McGinness or Takashi Murakami. Even painters like Kehinde Wiley, eager to keep up with the demands of the elite art market, hire Chinese craftsmen to produce paint-by-numbers paintings that Kehinde than sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars to art collectors. Here the lines of art and design are forever blurred. Desire must be met in the modern consumer culture even if at the price of art.
There are signs of hope, if only small and far afield. Ai Weiwei’s recent installation in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern is a masterful work that calls into question modern ideas of materiality and production in our consumerist age. Weiwei had 100 million (not thousand) tiny pieces of porcelain painted to mimic sunflower seeds and scattered them over the entire floor of Turbine Hall. This is a commentary on our complicity with sexy objects as much as it is a screed on the social and political structures that support their dominance. It is also an example of how art can still produce sexy objects/environments that through their sensuality and eroticism can subjugate their own objectness and become something more meaningful that contributes to a conversation about our ever growing interconnectedness in the 21st century. The reason Hockney’s iPhone paintings are so bad isn’t in their primitive content or sketchy, childlike quality. Actually, those are qualities that have made Hockney famous in his paintings and watercolors. No, his iPhone art is awful because it places the device, the tool above the idea. In the hands of an amateur or child this is a sketch, a playful gesture that is attaching no real meaning other than the joy of creating. In the hands of a blue chip artist it is commodity. Which brings me to my larger point.
Art as it has served for more than 35,000 years and probably longer, is a way of expressing that thing which separates us from any other living creature we know — self awareness. Cognitive self-recognition takes on the form of a third voice which lives within all of us. The voice that is you but is also somehow outside of you, or what we call consciousness. Art is the outlet for something in all likelihood that might otherwise make us all schizophrenic. Wether we interpret it as the voice of god, as Michelangelo did or simply our own complicated neuro-pathway’s giving voice to the muck of biochemistry, consciousness is what distinguishes us as a species. Although, at its best, design may attain many of the qualities of art, giving voice to consciousness in the form of fulfilling our innermost desires with beautiful objects, it cannot give us what art can — the obscure, the oblique, the questioning of ourselves. The pain of uncertainty. No well designed object asks us what we can be or demands of us to ask bigger questions. High design objects like the iPhone replace questions with answers. In Jonathan Franzen’s recent New York Times essay, he very eloquently outlines this difference, “And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us.” In other words, as he goes on to say, these coveted interfaces and objects are not loveable and therefore empty of the meaningfulness pain brings us in our short lives. No designed object is interested in bringing you closer to your pain. It is only interested in your desire and your joy. Art on the other hand is interested in the entire arena of human experience and by reflecting that experience back at us, it can, at its best make us think a little more deeply about ourselves and what we should or shouldn’t contribute to this ever shrinking planet.
Art is one of the few things that can mimic that irrational behavior we refer to as love. And by that I mean, it brings with it all of the obscurity that asking the big questions asks and all of the euphoria, fear, joy and pain that comes with it as well. Anyone who has loved knows that you do not escape its grasp unscathed and free of pain. It is not something easily discarded when next year’s model comes out, shiny, sleeker and more desirable than the last. The trauma of the new that we have put into perpetual motion is sustained by our unending desire for objects that are an attempt to avoid that very trauma. Our zeal for the designed object is a way of masking our fear — fear of the unknown. As the economic short-comings of Ayn Rand’s philosophy came to an inevitable collapse in the 2008 bank fallout, so too will the affectations of today’s design. We cannot escape pain, nor should we. Perpetuating pleasure over pain will only lead us down an empty corridor. As every good artist knows, tools are just that, a means to an end that supports a larger idea. Design is important while it still serves our creativity and our better living. But when design provides that better living at the expense of a much larger world and subjugates creativity into a singular vision who’s only purpose is to reinforce your erotic desire, we are lost.