There's no real proof that a human's creative goals are any loftier than a bird's. As the bower bird exemplifies, design is not unique to people; furthermore, aesthetic value may be innate. We surround ourselves with functional objects that are also aesthetically appealing. Often we're attracted first to the way something looks, particularly when we're faced with many design choices for one function (think of tableware). In such cases, function follows form, at least from a consumer's perspective. The song and dance that may finally seduce us is the object's utilitarianism -- or its price tag, something with which the avian world fortunately need not contend.
On the other hand, intuition may help us link what is most functional with what is most beautiful. Do we alight in front of the stainless steel refrigerator because it is snazzier than the white fridge with the textured surface or because it's more durable and easier to clean? Or are humans, like birds and many mammals, attracted to shinier, more colorful objects? Then again, a white bathtub has few practical advantages over a red one, but most people choose white, perhaps implying a tendency toward conformity more than a lack of imagination. Well, it's all very complicated, isn't it? Scientists are still trying to figure out aesthetic motivations for bower birds too.
For all those reasons, Against Design at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art provides more questions than answers -- and is an entertaining excuse to debate the nature of design and art. The exhibition was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, and made possible by an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award given to curators who "[support] thematic exhibitions that challenge audiences and expand the boundaries of contemporary art." Guest curated by Steven Beyer, the show features ten international artists who "produced situational artwork that combines the vocabulary of industrial design with the context of fine art and leans toward both disciplines," Beyer and essayist Melissa Brookhart write in the exhibition catalog.
The "context of fine art" can refer to a museum, gallery or any other "authority" that elevates a work to the status of aesthetic excellence, right or wrong. Beyond that, the phrase is debatable -- or at least should be, since the boundary between art and design exists for people who are more interested in commerce than visual poetics. In those cases, design gets shackled to traditional definitions of beauty and function, while art has the freedom to explore alternative definitions.
Joep van Lieshout's "Tampa Skull," for example, lacks traditional beauty. At least outwardly. The 25-foot blue "sculpture" resembles a conglomeration of industrial heating and cooling units fused with Dumpsters. Its exterior shape is a direct result of its yachtlike interior: a compartmentalized living space of bedroom, office, kitchenette and bath. Though painfully claustrophobic, the space is lovely in its clean, wooden simplicity. Viewers are asked to remove their shoes before entering, which magnifies the interior's Zen-like austerity. Although the relationship between inside and outside becomes clear, there's no obvious unifying relationship between the exterior and the surrounding environment -- and this is where form is more jarring than enticing. Beyer and Brookhart claim that because works like "Tampa Skull" (and Andrea Zittel's "A-Z1994 Living Unit," a habitable space even more compartmentalized and aesthetically exquisite) are customized for a specific collector or exhibition, they are more "artlike." The unfortunate implication is that art is finer if it's one-of-a-kind.
But mass production is more cost effective than unique designs, and it reduces the economic elitism inherent in most fine art. After all, how many of us could afford even one of the Against Design artworks? Besides, there is nothing wrong with mass-produced objects that are artful and beautiful. They allow more people to enjoy the aesthetic rewards of a well-designed environment. Indeed, some manufacturers -- Kohler bathroom products, for one -- consider their products works of art. And they should, for a beautifully designed toilet is surely a sight for sore eyes as well as a site for sore asses. Finally, the implication that an object must be one-of-a-kind to be fine art invalidates much printmaking and photography, and some areas of fiber and ceramic arts.
Another question the exhibition raises is whether aesthetic pleasure has value. Beyer and Brookhart actually include the phrase "useless aesthetic pleasure" in the catalog. This is disheartening, for it parrots the unenlightened view of the pedestrian masses, who are blind to the extent their lives are affected by aesthetics and feel that the fine arts are a waste of time and, most especially, money. Our puritan heritage reduces pleasure to a feeling without value -- a sinful one, at that.
Aesthetic pleasure may not be as measurable as utilitarian function, but it's certainly just as useful. Kevin Appel's two-dimensional paintings, such as "House West View Out," may use the visual language of architectural renderings, but they are handsome in their own right. Same with Clay Ketter's "Cold Kitchenette (stainless Surface composite #14)," whose shiny steel and glass surfaces, Beyer and Brookhart believe, "suggest its transformation into something else." That "something else" may be a stainless steel refrigerator or simply the idea of exquisite functionality, which we intuit and then translate as beauty. If we do not also find beautiful what is practical to us as a species, it is more likely we will be repelled by rather than attracted to what sustains us.
The individual integrity of the works in Against Design is evident in the questions they raise about our physical environment. What the exhibition most successfully offers is a way for us to rethink and re-view our homes and work spaces as our own private museums exhibiting both mass-produced and one-of-a-kind art. Case in point:
"This is art?" drawled a museumgoer upon entering the exhibition. "Well, then, I got a whole house full of it."
Yep. We all do.