Quit Polarizing Art and Design

I’ve been thinking a lot about art recently. I’ve more so been thinking about the connotations around art—how we define it, what we perceive of it, and how we value it. Last year, on this day exactly, I wrote “Why Is Art So Expensive?” In similar fashion to that article, I want to talk about art rather informally—to challenge what it is that we call “art.”

This impulse stems from talking to others about art, hearing how people talk around it, and observing how it’s addressed. I’ve come to notice that we attempt to reduce the role of art down to a means of beauty. Not aesthetics, but beauty. More often than not, appearance is generalized to fulfilling a criteria—beautiful or not beautiful. Considering beauty can fit into the larger category of aesthetics, I’ll address art’s perceived role as such.

To start, reducing the criteria of art to that of purely aesthetics is both ignorant and insulting. I say this because such oversimplification, more often than not, carries with it (and is guided by) the connotation that aesthetics lack depth. Art that is based purely in aesthetics is the definition of bystanders—it’s the lazy regurgitation of non-participatory observers.

I find that artwork’s singular role lies in it’s beauty, in fact, aesthetics seem to be very rarely at the core of most art. It’s as though this thinking—this seeming necessity for reduction and simplification—is derivative of our incessant need to form a binary between art and design. Inversely, when aesthetics are brought to the forefront of design, we’re quick to revoke the precious title of design.

Suggesting some sort of polarity between aesthetics and function (see also, art and design) doesn’t make sense—it suggests that aesthetics alone isn’t a function or purpose deemed worthy enough of the objective pedestal by which we place design. That’s bullshit. Aesthetics is a function. Beauty is a function. Lack of beauty is a function. Visual pleasure or discomfort is a function. The ability to evoke a particular emotion is a function.

When one can be categorized within the other, the two can’t be polarized (where if you’re not one you’re the other). It’d be like trying to suggest there’s a dichotomy between running and competition. In this case, running being aesthetics and exercise being function. Not all function necessitates beauty just as not all exercise equates to running. Inversely, aesthetics carry with them an inherent function just as running is inherently a form of exercise.

I bring all of this up because it seems strange to address aesthetics and function as opposites of some form. In the name of design, we hail objective functionality and fail to recognize the other roles of art beyond mere aesthetics. In not understanding what else art can do, we fail to push the limitations of functionality. I find that most art makes us ask questions, but instead we synonymize beauty with art rather than interrogation or inquiry. To that point, I don’t think design is asking enough questions. I don’t think there’s enough art in design. Hell, I don’t think there’s much need to distinguish between the two.