Art as a Commodity: how Design has alienated the Artist from Art

Design seems to be attributed to problem-solving, practicality and function. The role of the designer is by no means limited to one explanation. And yet, one thing that all designers seem to have in common is that they give form to an idea, and for a design to emerge at all, there has to be a pre-existing need. Vilem Flusser references texts which describe a designer as "a cunning plotter laying his traps", somehow working mechanically from an appointed task. Norman Potter takes on a similar view, characterizing a designer as someone who "works through and for other people, and is concerned primarily with their problems rather than his own.” In both cases a designer is seen as being involved, not in the world of art, but in the world of buying and selling.

Take the design of plastic pens, for instance. They are becoming cheaper and cheaper, given away for nothing, their material has practically no value, and the labor (which in Marxist terms is the source of all value) is accomplished by automatic machines. The only thing that gives the pens any kind of value is their design, which is the reason they have function. In this case Flusser equals design with function, and good design would mean good function. Hal Foster, also in accordance with the functionality of design, elaborates on the need and significance of everyday modern design. The consumer has to be drawn into the product, and so the package becomes almost as important as the product itself. Profiling the commodity drives the inflation of design.

Speaking in these terms, it becomes clear that design is not only significant in a creative sphere, but also in a financial and commercial world. Brand equity, the branding of a product to an attention-deficit public, becomes fundamental to society and design. Because design seems so integrated in the everyday (on various levels), it can be said that there's an apparent practical and immediate function attached to it. For some it is an investment, for others an income, which ultimately makes it an active and functional domain in our society. The apparent product, the object attached to the transaction, is not the actual product at all. The real product has become culture and intelligence.

To illustrate this, Bruce Mau asks the question "Has America made Coke, or has Coke made America?" This integration of creativity into our practical lives gives designers the status of an artist and the pay-check of the businessman.

In order to understand the complexity surrounding whether a specific work is art or design, we can take a look at Joe Scanlan's account of Thorsetin Veblen. Veblen's theory embodies the idea that the extent to which an object fails to be useful, only enhances its value as art. Beauty's most basic trait is its lack of utility, and the more time one devotes to pointless endeavours, the more beautiful those endeavours become. Veblen believes that art is the ultimate pointless endeavour and thus one of the most flattering things a person can be associated with, since its presence always implies the ability to waste huge amounts of time on something that has no ostensible use. This raises questions about the function of an artwork merely hanging on a wall, individual functions for the viewer, personal growth inside the artist, teaching and educating though art, speaking to the illiterate, and other apparently functional traits.

Classic examples of so-called utilitarian art can be found in the domains of architecture and furniture. Jorge Pardo, American/Cuban artist, re-designed the entrance lobby, bookstore and first-floor gallery of Dia Center for the Arts. The original building attracted a serious art crowd, reflecting the institutional profile of exclusive taste and interest. They were not just incidental passers-by, window shoppers or curious tourists. Pardo began by making chairs to sit in, tables to put things on, lamps to illuminate a room, furniture to live with, bedroom ensembles to coordinate, a pavilion to occupy, a house to live in, providing a cool space to read, browse, hang out, talk, look at art, people and shopping. By doing so Pardo has consistently asserted physical and social utility as an integral part of his work. His re-design of the gallery made possible that there is no difference of social function between the actual gallery space, the bookshop and the lobby. There exists an equal treatment of all three, equaling the function of the buying of books and designed marketable objects with the function of viewing art, thus democratizing art and opening up the space to a wider audience.

Pardo also presented a VW Beetle covered in clay. He thus referenced "the people's car" and other aspects of the modernist dream. The clay-covered car has a certain static quality: It isn't like any other version of the car, it's a unique object, sculpted by human hands, not a functional vehicle, and closer to a sculpture than a car. In this case Pardo's work has become non-functional and is perhaps referencing Duchamp's strategy of the ready-made commercial object. Even though this example can be seen as sculpture having a certain non-utilitarian quality to it, it functions in the sense that the VW Beetle is destabilizing the connectional category of art and the authority of art institutions by asserting industrial, commercial objects as art. One could even see museums functioning like corporations today, supporting the notion that artworks no longer only have cultural value, but are treated as commodities whose value would be realized only in exchange. Architecture, public art, furniture and many seemingly functional objects still are somehow categorized as art and created by an artist instead of design created by a designer.

In mentioning buzzwords like “commercial”, “consumer” and “utility”, it may be helpful to bring in a pre-Capitalist perspective. Marx and Engels were interested in the formation of class division and argued that by understanding the system of property ownership in any one society, we can acquire the key to understanding its social relations. Marx’ view on design would surely be a strong one, as our current capitalist society is highly dependent on “good design”. Under a capitalist system, according to Marx, the worker becomes disconnected from the products that created the moment they are handed over to the employer. This causes the worker to lose their self-identity. Part of the reason “Designed Art” is interesting for venture capitalists, is that is has the potential to reach a larger audience and be mass-produced.

Barbara Bloemink, the curational director of the national design museum in New York, states: "As we move forward through the twenty-first century, distinctions between design and art are likely to become increasingly difficult to define." Many artists' works become increasingly more loaded with "the Utopian ideals associated with functionalism, mass production, industrialization and standardization, and they have potential to provoke interesting debates concerning the status of use-value as a form of exhibition value in contemporary Designed Art.”

Surely Marx would feel very disconnected with the idea of “designed art” and how art is being treated like a commodity. If the artist solely produces work in order to be sold by the gallery/agent, then according to Marx the artist is removed from the fulfilling quality of work, leading to alienation and dissatisfaction. One form of this alienation arises from the fact that the artist cannot keep their work, meaning that the art becomes an alien object with which they have little real connection towards. The artist may be producing beautiful objects for other people to use and enjoy, but this only limits them. Under this system of commodifying art, the artist's activity does not arise out of their inherent creativity, but from the practical necessity of working for someone else.

It seems that, beginning with the Modernists, the idea of art, instead of being an added, decorative layer, suddenly is becoming something fully integrated into modern life. Art may also be a service-oriented activity. The parallel between design and art reveals how these two disciplines function similarly (attributing value and experience to objects). Many designed objects are seen as purely sculptural entities, such as the furniture of Donald Judd: "Others claim that Judd's furniture fails as furniture and must be art, after all, because it isn't comfortable to sit on.” The working process of an artist and a designer can become almost identical, which is why much of design is progressively being shown in galleries. Today we find ourselves in a kind of "Kleenex Culture", in which more and more consumer products shift from semi-permanent to a disposable basis. This is why it is important to differentiate between purely economic design that has only one goal: to create profit by exploiting an attention-deprived consumer market; and design which expands the elite audience of art and enforces democratization of spaces through non-hierarchical social interactions.

Bec Wonders