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These Human Contraptions: Art or Design

Below are some rough ideas that surfaced during a discussion in my one and only design course this semester who’s function is to observe art and it’s relation to design, and vice-versa. Corrections and comments welcomed.

Above All there is Function.
If I had to (read had to) categorize something as being “art” or “design”, I would say that function is the first criteria that I would run it through. The more functional a thing is, the more it gets absorbed into the realm or design;  the less we can determine it’s function, the more it is swallowed by the realm of art. Don’t get me wrong, not everything is black and white, most of it is actually shades of gray… 20% art 70% design ( and 10% embellishment) Most of the time this function criteria will work, but there are two factors that greatly affect this criteria, each explained in the next paragraphs: 1. rationality (causes the equation flip), and 2. super-function (causes things to be indeterminable as art or design).


Keep You From Forgetting To Mail Your Wife's Letter - Rube Goldberg Contraption

1. The Rationality.
In relation to design, rationality can push a thing beyond it’s function, flipping it closer to the realm of art. An example would be a design that is too irrational like a Rube Goldberg contraption (above), or the opposite, something that too rational like Chindogu (below). While Rube Goldberg’s contraptions have a function, the method in which they go about functioning is too irrational – that becomes art. The Chindogu, like the Hay-Fever toilet paper hat below, which is too rational –of course you would want a roll of toilet paper on your head if you have a runny nose! –that becomes art too.

Hay Fever Hat-The all day tissue dispenser a Chindogu from International Chindogu Society

Hay Fever Hat-The all day tissue dispenser a Chindogu from International Chindogu Society

Rationality can also affect things that are normally labeled as art. When art is made rationally, that is it makes sense and is understood, I would say it is actually a design disguised as art, since all it’s parts are carefully strategized to have a function. I’m a big fan of Paul Rand who said you can’t make art, art is –if you’re lucky– a byproduct of what ever it is you are doing, be it design or washing dishes. Artist are the first to complain about this view, but I am not saying that making art is useless, but don’t be surprised or upset that the thing you finally create doesn’t feel like art, there is a possibility that another aspect of that thing –it’s byproduct– it the real art deal. I remember one of my teachers once saying he didn’t care for Brancusi’s sculptures but the pictures of the sculptures–now that was art to him!

Let’s look at the opposite, an irrational art piece can also made design by being explicated via text, or forced into having a function– then the work of art, with it’s function revealed, rationalized, or involuntarily assigned, becomes design than an art piece. Design, after all, comes from  Latin ‘to mark out’, (de- +signare), similar to designate (Latin past participle of designare Merriam-Webster). Therefor if you can designate a function to an art piece, it is design –you have ‘marked it out’, you have designed it! It is somewhat similar when the tables are turned: remove the function or a design, then it has the possibility of becoming art, that is of course, if it holds your interest. Without interest it is just a thing, neither art nor design.

Man-made and natural super-functions are illustrated in The Hitchhickers Guide to the Galaxy.

Man-made and natural super-functions are illustrated in The Hitchhickers Guide to the Galaxy.

2. The Super-Function.
Before talking about super-function, I want to clarify that by super I mean extreme or excessive quality –in both a positive and negative sense. The super-function arises when something has an incalculable amount of function and thus it’s state of being labeled art or design in indeterminable. In the extreme end of  super-function I am reminded of the question of the function of life as discussed in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this sci-fiction novel, humans attempt to answer the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” eventually they do arrive at an answer, which is 42- duh!… Life, the Universe, and Everything, with it’s super-function is indeterminable. People often want to continue to discuss super-function of nature- forget it, it’s beyond us. The realms of art and design, for the sake of this essay, revolve only around man-made things.

[Side Note: The humans in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy don't actually come up with the answer "42" on their own, the actually design a computer called Deep Thought that took 7 ½ million years to come up with the answer to the "ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything". In the end another computer has to be built in order to make sense of the answer. This new computer is actually Earth -a planet size computer, which is often mistaken for a planet because of it's size and use of life forms within it's "computational matrix". (So that's our function!?)]

What about Purpose or Intent?
Besides function, rationality, and super-function why don’t I consider “purpose” or “intent” of the artist or designers as factors? Because both “purpose” an “intent” are only the creators’ ideal state of being –either art or design. This  purpose only exists in the mind or in a situation where it’s purpose hasn’t been realized. And even once realized there are many factors that can change it’s state. For example when something has the intent or purpose of being a design, it cannot be determined as being design until it’s function is realized, only with a quantifiable degree of function can you then make a determination. Something that hasn’t been realized should not be confused with something that may never be realized, as the latter is possibly an indication of something that has a super-function as described mentioned above. Deep Thought, although it was designer to find the ultimate answers, it hasn’t proven to function, properly, there for it is not design. In the end it might actually be art, the computer “earth” might also be art, if it doesn’t solve the problem of what “42″ is.

The Art/Design Graph?
…hasn’t been sketched up yet, but hopefully someone someday will make it and all this babbling with become clear.

(although useless is not the right word to describe Chindogu, here it is, noted in a Design Boom article about the History of Useless Inventions.)

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  2. Antonio says: October 25, 20095:43 pm

    I’m just reading Panofsky’s Essay “History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” 1940. He has some interesting things to say about art and design…

    • natural object -have the option to be experienced aesthetically or not (as art). But Natural objects contain ‘intention’ (will argue it has a super-function)

    • Man-made objects – objects that either demand or do not demand to be experienced aesthetically. These can be browken down into “practical objects” and “art objects”

    • Practical objects – are man-made objects that don’t have the need to be experienced aesthetically. Practical objects broken into two types: ‘vehicles for communication’ and ‘apparatus’ or ‘tools’. These practical objects are intended to fill a function.

    • Art objects – are man-made objects that need to be experienced aesthetically. These too can fall into the categories of ‘vehicles for communication’ and ‘apparatus’ or ‘tools’.

    • Both art objects and practical objects have form
    (it’s part of coming to existence, at least this was the case before conceptual art)

    • Both art objects and practical objects have ideas.

    • When ideas and forms are balanced,the more ‘elloquantly’ it is to get content from it. When one over shadows the other, content is reduced. He gives the example of a spinning wheel as a strong idea with little content and an abstract painting as strong form with little content.

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