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Art = Design, 1988
Lecture by Karl Gerstner, presented at the annual conference of Swiss Art Historians in Zurich.
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The following is a transcribed lecture given by Karl Gerstner in 1988, printed in his 2001 book ‘Review of 5 x 10 Years of Graphic Design etc.’ If you enjoy articles like this, and would like to support the project, subscribe to Logo Histories.
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The theme was chosen for me. I was particularly fascinated by it because it wouldn't have occurred to me without prompting. Art = Design is an equation I take for granted, and I was curious to discover what might be worth questioning about it.
One difficulty became apparent right away. I can offer an adequate definition of design; but no one can say what art is. Because it is the unique and essential task of art to redefine itself continuously. Michelangelo would probably have had considerably more difficulty discovering a work of art in Joseph Beuvs's Lightning Bolt with Rays of Light on a Stag than any contemporary artist or viewer - and I probably don't need to go as far back as Michelangelo.
Ultimately, the only thing we can speak about with language is language. Art speaks for itself. But lest my address come to an abrupt end with this assertion, I shall attempt, so to speak, to sneak up on the object from behind. Beginning, for example, with a statement that hardly anyone would dispute: that art has something to do with imagination, which is derived from "imago" or "image." But to avoid closing the circle already, I would ask you not to think of the visual image as a work of art quite yet. I don't mean the real object but - in a philosophical sense - image as the opposite of concept.
Concepts are abstract, particles of discursive thought, of logic; images are visible, intuitive entities of dreams and visions. To the complementary pair of image/concept we must add a third, higher one, which is composed of both image and concept: intellectual observation, or visualized thought. According to Immanuel Kant, that is direct access to "the real basis of nature"; something of which human beings are not capable.
Though the human being knows that this basis exists, it remains beyond the grasp of his ability to comprehend.
The young Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling recognized this either-or potential. In art, he writes in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), the absolute becomes comprehensible, the unification of subject and object, of culture and nature, of freedom and necessity. "Thus the philosopher views art as the highest discipline, because it reveals to him, so to speak, the Holy of Holies, where what is divided in nature and history burns in perpetual unity as in an eternal flame…”
Friedrich Nietzsche regarded art as the "true metaphysical activity of the human being" - an activity that had been reserved to priests and theologists and perhaps to philosophers for centuries before him. What an amazing shift in the hierarchy of values! At least, when I consider my own art - visual art, that is. It was not regarded - as was poetry and music - among the seven liberal arts. Even da Vinci was categorized as a manual crafts-man, a classification he - quite earnestly - resisted. Addressing the poets, he wrote: "Yet you have placed painting amongst the manual crafts ... While painting encompasses all of the forms of nature, you have nothing but names, which are not as readily comprehensible as the forms.”
Art as the source and sanctuary of wisdom - indeed, as a substitute for the lost religion of the churches? Surely an idea that flatters the artist's ego. But it is troublesome - particularly when I compare the ideal of the philosophers with the reality of works of art. Take Schelling's ideal and the paintings of the Nazarenes that were done during the same period, for example.
It is impossible to say who exerted greater influence upon whom. The fact is that artists transposed their activity into a kind of religious obligation. Johann Friedrich Overbeck went so far as to claim that his paintings were sermons - the most impressive and insistent example of which is probably his Triumph of Religion in the Arts (now at the Städel in Frankfurt). Gathered together in this monumental work - as saints in a group portrait - are all of the greats, the classical figures of European painting. I get the message all right, but belief continues to elude me in view of the many hypocrites (and even criminals) that have populated even artists' circles in all ages. Initially, at least, Nietzsche saw his high expectations fulfilled in the work of Richard Wagner. It is true that Wagner - unlike Overbeck - was in many was an ingenious reformer: of musical form, of the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, of the social commitment of art - his themes are rank with the musty odour the poets of his age attached to the world of medieval sagas.
I fail to see the point when I consider my contemporaries. I am totally incapable of discovering in the work of Andy Warhol, for example, or Joseph Buys or Julian Schnabel - to name just a few prominent artists on the spur of the moment - anything akin to religious meaning. My great admiration notwithstanding, I am not even sure that it is art.
Works of art become works of art only after the fact by attracting auratic energies to themselves. That is precisely the thing that cannot be done but which makes art what it is. Aura is beyond the reach of the influence of artists, critics, or other animateurs. And that is what I find impossible to talk about: the hermetic process, the chemical reaction that takes place when the designer's works are immersed in the bath of public consciousness.
Just imagine: a work of art and nobody even looks! That is a fate suffered by many great artists - who have thus remained un-discovered. It happens occasionally that an artist has had to wait a few hundred years for the right moment - the right look - to come. I recently read the following passage in Der Spiegel: "His fame continues to grow. And familiarity with his work as well. Has a new supernova appeared in the firmament of art history?" The artist in question was the Dutch painter Hendrick ter Brugghen, who died in 1629 and has only now found his way into museums - and into the focus of public attention.
The conscious desire to produce a work of art is, a priori, not only arrogant but impossible. What is possible and something I am able to talk about is the objective process of designing. Capturing something in a visual image: giving form to something - whatever it is, in whatever way it happens - that had none before. Giving expression to, representing in form and color, something experienced, imagined, suspected, dreamed, sensed or felt. Or expressing it in words.
Homo sapiens was the first living being that did not adapt to its earthly environment (which, by the way, was anything but a paradise). Instead, man adapted the world to himself. In one or perhaps two millions years - a ridiculously short span of time in terms of geological history - he has reshaped it to suit his needs and wants. The human capacity for speech was structured into language. With the aid of language and other sign systems invented by humans, people learned to comprehend themselves and their fellow human beings, their environment, and the universe.
And mankind conceived its divinities and God. Human beings grew sedentary, began building their own abodes, and brought food to their own doorsteps.
Today, there is nothing natural left in the inhabitable parts of the world, not even nature itself - let us not delude ourselves. Where man is most human, he is a powerful designer - even in the design of his own follies, which should come as no surprise.
Art = Design: The equation is indeed nothing more than a platitude, a banal expression. It is a mere facade. To make it mean something, I have to reverse it: Design = Art. To design some thing is always to create a potential work of art.
I am less interested in introducing a new concept of art (one a little less expanded than that of Joseph Beys) than in getting to the heart of the matter: Design must not be misunderstood as an activity reserved to artists. It is the privilege of all people everywhere. The fact that most people make no other use of this privilege than to design their own personal lives - obeying normative laws even within this very narrow context - is a blessing for society. These are the preservers, the administrators of everything that has been achieved thus far. The others are the eternal "Jimmy Tomorrows," the restless, the driven and the drivers, designers beyond the boundaries defined by their own personal radius of action. Whatever they fix their sights upon - from the development of a more productive variety of corn to the design of a new model of living - they are constantly changing things in society; sometimes intentionally, sometimes unconsciously - usually without regard for consequences, primary or secondary. And often without even knowing why.
The preserver majority stabilizes society, holding it together; the designer minority keeps it from stagnating. It is this continuous interplay that, occasionally tipping out of balance to the one side or the other, has often grandiose but more frequently devastating, consequences in the history of mankind.
Without going into great detail, I would like to add something here - in order to avoid being misunderstood. When I assign the designed object the status of a potential work of art, I have in mind a probability comparable to that of a lottery: something like one in countless millions. The threshold at which the designed object becomes a work of art is high. And the nineteenth century raised it, so to speak, to the heavens by elevating (and banishing) the artist/ writer/composer to a position of splendid isolation as a quasi-divinity, cutting him off from the community of designers. His activity was given the status of "pure," as opposed to "applied" or impure, art. Here the divine, there the profane. The French language distinguishes between "beaux-arts" and "arts décoratifs" and, even more drastically, between "arts majeurs" and "arts mineurs" - higher and lower arts.
While that is of no use to the so-called higher arts, it devalues the "lower" ones - a view that has infected our consciousness and wreaked havoc within the organism of society - continually metastasizing anew. Though we have museums full of magnificent paintings (most of them in storage, by the way), the cultural quality of everyday life is truly lamentable.
Consider, for example, the media - both the electronic and print varieties - that feed us day in and day out with a steady diet ranging from the banal to the unspeakable. Consider, for example, the objects that surround us everywhere we go - furniture and furnishings, pictures included. Consider, for example, of the houses and cities in which we live. Things have become phenomenally comfortable and efficient. That is beyond dispute, but what good are television sets, cars, computers, even in their most appealing forms, when I consider the content they both communicate and produce.
Furthermore, things become obsolete, i.e. turn to garbage, faster than they can be used. And they are becoming increasingly burdensome as waste as well. I know, I know - such generalizations are sins against the Holy Spirit of better knowledge. Praiseworthy exceptions can be found everywhere. And we still and often enough have recourse to the past. But that in itself should give us pause for thought.
Fortunate indeed is the city that still has a medieval, baroque, or Renaissance core. One can still experience there what urban culture really is; where living is not merely a function but a pleasure, one of the essential qualities of life. I am a great admirer of old cities, especially Italian ones: Florence, Siena, Perugia, not to mention Venice; and small ones, too, like Gubbio, Urbino, Pienza, Spoleto - consider the sheer mastery with which they were laid out and integrated into their respective landscapes; how human their scale, how imaginative their spatial configuration.
But how crushed I am when I leave the old centers and venture into the newer outlying districts or even the suburbs - gone is the atmosphere, the charm, the humanity. And that without a single exception. To those who are not convinced, I can only recommend a journey to Mexico City, or Cairo, or Los Angeles: horror metropolises that engender dramatically escalating paranoia, fear, and violence.
That becomes all the more tragic in view of the fact that architecture, actually an applied art, has never been regarded as one of the "arts mineurs" but always as an "art majeur." We have lost something along the way: a consensus on values, on what is important and what is not. The capacity to find new solutions for new problems, solutions that are as good as the old ones. We allow ourselves to be guided by material constraints - even more so by what we only believe to be such - tidying up at best what goes on despite our efforts.
The dynamic process of development since the Industrial and Post-Industrial Revolutions has grown largely autonomous and permits only minor corrections at best. Where designers are at work, their attention tends to be focused on virtually everything but the improvement of aesthetic culture.
There were some who saw the light and resisted foreseeable consequences in the early years of the epoch. William Morris was one. And the recipes he put together to save the world were not entirely without effect. He stubbornly embraced the tradition of manual craftsmanship and restored the Gothic language of forms. In doing so, he founded Art Nouveau, which nonetheless owed its stunning breakthrough to the classes closest to the hearts of dedicated socialists to industrial manufacture after all.
Despite such courageous attempts to correct a course that had gone wrong - the Bauhaus, for instance, which did not oppose change but instead sought to create something new from within it - we designers have consistently failed to keep pace with developments. The problem, I fear, is not only that we haven't done our job but that we have failed to realize what it is.
We evidently do not begin to understand until the foundations of our very existence start to shake. Today, for example, that we must take steps to conserve nature, having thoughtlessly destroyed the ecological balance (undeniably a kind of design in its own right).
We also sense that we must do something for culture as well. We are building more museums than ever before, more theaters, more concert halls; our interest in monuments to the past has grown considerably. Tourism in this area is assuming proportions that are not only unpleasant but downright frightening. Yet these activities are nothing but attempts to establish an alibi; they represent a form of actionism devoted at best to the maintenance of our holiday, festival, and Sunday-outing culture.
We allow our everyday culture to deteriorate beneath a thick layer of cosmetics - a hair-raising paradox in the age of democracy. This is the problem that gnaws at the foundations of our intellectual existence - and the public is not even aware of it.
It is here, more than in the so-called higher arts, that the designer is challenged every-where. And the task is far greater and more difficult than that of restoring our natural environment. With respect to nature, the designer can work toward a known objective; in the field of culture, only the starting point is known - the goal remains to be defined. What an agglomeration of twenty or thirty million people looks like or should look like under conditions favorable to humane communal life is a question that has never been asked.
The first order of business is to eradicate the unfortunate hierarchies of the nineteenth century. Every task worth doing is worth doing well. Michelangelo, chief architect of Saint Peter's in later years, was not too proud to design the uniform of the Swiss Guard.
There are no inferior tasks.
There are only inferior solutions.
Not to mention the fact that to do something worse than I am capable of doing is a waste of the best I have to offer, namely my own potential. This applies to every kind of activity, including those of the preserver and administrator, but especially to those of the designer. The rules of the Benedictine Order do not distinguish between good and evil but between "practical" and "impractical." It is sinful to do a job poorly - that is, to do something impractical.
Do what you do as if you had lived a thousand years on earth and as if tomorrow were the last day of your life. That was the creed of Sister Ann, founder of the Shaker sect. Their products - from the sewing chest to the complete settlement - gained fame for both the quality of their workmanship and their aesthetic appeal; a direct consequence of their faith. As you see. I return to the matter of religion once again. But in this case the honor goes not to the Great, Divine Designer but to the natural genius of mankind. As admirable as the Shakers are - or rather were lone of their most admirable and decent acts was their own self-dissolution - they cannot serve as a model. They were much too sectarian for that.
In the search for a model, my first choice would be Zen Buddhism, or at least what I understand of it. Every religion leaves an imprint on the lives of its faithful and the statements they make about life. But none has generated such a sustained creative power as the philosophical principles of Zen-Buddhist faith. It gave birth, in a sense, to a perfectly natural aesthetic: not an imposed, taste-oriented one but rather an aesthetic that comes from within. That begins with the Zen-Buddhists' conceptual approach to matter. The architect respected the free in every beam, the living thing from which it came - which quite naturally led to an ecologically oriented economy. In the distinction between supporting and supported elements, the Zen-Buddhist architect grasped not only the structural principles of the architectural work but the universal principle that underlies them - which quite naturally led to a different construction technique. He did not forcibly join the vertical and horizontal members - with nails, screws, or glue - but with feeling, connecting them in such way that they held by themselves. And so on.
The outcome is an architecture of supreme elegance, transparency, and variability based upon a modular system - which in turn expresses yet another principle: that of unity and diversity. Everything is in a state of natural accord with functions and processes of life. And what is true of architecture applies as well to all other artefacts - including, of course, the work of art. I do not wish to delve more deeply into this example, and it belongs to the past in any case.
A look at Japan today compels one to admit that, through its success was not sustained, its failure, at least, was magnificent. It is as impossible - particularly for us Westerners - to restore Zen-Buddhism as it was to revive Gothic architecture. Not to mention the fact that restoration - regardless of what kind - will not get us where we need to go.
How we are to get there, I have no idea. But I do not wish to conclude my remarks without lighting at least a small candle of hope. With a quotation from Gottfried Benn, who, though not a religious man, was indeed a moralist of the highest order. He expressed a kind of categorical imperative for the designer: do not seek to perfect your personality, perfect instead every work you do.
If this is not a faith with a broad consensus, it is an approach of consequence for the individual. The designer has no choice but to assume responsibility for his own commitment. Only thus can he maintain his independence in the face of expectations that cannot be fulfilled: society's expectations of him. and his expectations of society.
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Logo Histories' Extra Issue unlocks opinion and insights lost to time, buried within the pages of rare out-of-print design books and magazines. Through this series, you'll come to understand the challenges and opportunities corporate identity designers of the past faced to help you better understand design practice of the present. For Logo Histories, click here.