Just exactly what is art?
This is a question so broad and general, so over-discussed, so hopelessly endless that one thinks only a fool would ask it. But I have never been wise or clever so what I try to do is not so much giving an answer as teasing out examples to show the differences and similarities. You can decide – or not.
All encyclopaedic museums have decorative arts departments: costume, furniture, accessories etc. in addition to their painting and sculpture departments. The Metropolitan Museum in New York is no exception. What surprised me is that its new curator in charge of European sculpture and decorative arts, Luke Syson, a veteran of the National Gallery in London, has a specialty in Italian paintings before 1500. He curated the blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci – Painter in the Court of Milan , which closed in London February, 2012.
Is the fact that a curator is responsible for both decorative arts and painting and sculpture enough to justify equating art with design? Or the just the fact decorative arts are in a museum? Let’s have a look.
In an interview at the Met with Lee Rosenbaum, Syson indicated his desire to make people look at decorative arts again as a record of history and culture, and as a thing of beauty and craftsmanship. He even equated looking at an 18th century French armchair as framed panels of fabric – and one so beautiful that actually no one was supposed to sit on it. That, I imagine, would be terribly difficult for the owner or anyone who may crave its comfort – but a problem that painting would never have. After all, a painting is for your eyes only.
The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which also has decorative arts in its collection, recently opened Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 (to 2/24/2013). Lynn Zelevansky, the director, had in her monthly post Inside the Museum described her own viewing experience of the show. She made it come alive for me by describing her favorite pieces. But she also wrote about important differences between art and design:
Personally, I have a relationship to design objects that is different from other art forms. Other kinds of art may intrigue me…, inspire deep study, or move me to tears, but once the experience of them is over, I’m usually content to turn them over in my mind. When a design object fascinates me, I want to own it. As best as I can figure, this has something to do with the utilitarian nature of these things. They beg to be handled or worn, and doing so gives a particularly intimate kind of pleasure to everyday existence. [my italics]
The internationally acclaimed architect and (first woman) Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid says:
Part of architecture’s job is to make people feel good in the spaces where we live, where we go to school or where we work.
The critic and essayist William Deresiewicz when writing about food as art and high culture had this to say:
A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
I get the drift: art is not always pleasurable, it can make you uncomfortable, search your soul, agonize, cry… It is, above all, for the mind. (That was Duchamp’s idea – and another story).
The British artist Antony Gormley says it all: Design supports life; art challenges it.
NB Some designers use artists’ conceptual tools in their design. See my post A Halloween Tale of Elegance – The Grotesque Fashion of the Rodarte Sisters