James Kettlewell

Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History

What is Art Anyway?

What is art anyway? The Modern age answered that question quite clearly, in a way which embraced all art forms, and which included the great variety of art produced by the many cultures of the past and present.1 Perhaps the question can be phrased more clearly. Not, “what is art?,” but rather, "what is essentially required for something to qualify as a work of art?"

Simply, it must be designed. This was how art was understood throughout much of the twentieth century. Following a British tradition developed in the mid-nineteenth century, art schools came to be called schools of design.2 Students learning art were required to take foundation courses in basic design. Countless twentieth century publications represented art as being essentially designed form.3

And what is design? Stating simply, what is in fact a complex issue, design is an ordered arrangement in response to the natural human craving for harmony and unity in all things. Design basics require an arrangement of harmonious patterns, which join together to form a unified whole; of colors and shapes in the visual arts; of movements in dance; of sounds in music, and of words in poetry. Other purely formal factors are also important in design, such as rhythm, tensions from contrasts, and texture. In great design/art there is another quality–vividness. Finally, like any stage designer, the visual artist has to recognize and coordinate the emotional content present in different colors and shapes.4 It is the emotional expression, I believe, which distinguishes art from mere design. Art could be simply defined as “design with feeling.” By emotion I do not mean anything esoteric, like Clive Bell’s “aesthetic emotion.” I mean something more simple, like the sadness of blue possibly, or the excitement of red; the anger of angular shapes; the peacefulness of curved. These are only examples of what I mean, not absolute principles. The emotional content of shapes and colors depends entirely on the context in which they appear.

Of course great numbers of things are designed which do not qualify as art. In most cases the failure of common designs would be for three factors: first, because the parts might not fit so well together, second, and this is quite common, there could be a conflict between the design and the subject matter. Finally, and this is most common, an emotional content would be lacking. When all the elements in a work proposed as art conspire together in a vivid harmony, and when there is a definite emotional expression, then the artist has committed art. Of course this does not require the hand of an artist at all. Nature does it all the time.

Today design theory as an explanation for art is commonly called “formalist theory.” I prefer the word “design” since it was the standard term used in the English language in the second half of the nineteenth century when the “fine” and “decorative” arts converged, establishing the foundation of Modern art. From its origins in the British Schools of Design, through the development of industrial arts, the Arts and Crafts, and Aesthetic movements, to Roger Fry’s Vision and Design published in 1920, “design” was the term normally used to refer to the form aspect of art, rather than to the content. It became less common after the effort of Adolf Loos to separate again the decorative from the fine arts, in his famous essay of 1908, “Ornament as Crime”.

And what is the purpose of this design which is so essential to all art, whatever its function, whatever its subject? It is simply to provide a special pleasure.5 In all true art there resides what I can only characterize as a pleasure principle. I love the famous statement made by the great seventeenth century French artist Nicolas Poussin: that “the purpose of art is delectation”. One can revel in the beauty of the language even as Lady Macbeth laments. Or enjoy the subtle patterns and gray tones in the horrific subjects of Goya’s Disasters of War. Picasso’s Women of Avignon is a masterpiece of rhythms and harmonious shapes. The delectation we experience even in inherently delectable subjects, such as Botticelli’s Primavera, have much to do with the carefully controlled design.

Let us say you disagree with this thesis. That you believe there can be examples of visual art that are not designed. But could you really say that about architecture, music or dance? Remove the design from any of these and what do you have? Are the visual arts so different from the other arts that we could include in them works lacking in design? The Postmodern critic Arthur Danto says you can call anything art and put it in a museum. Alas, Arthur, you can do that, but it does not make that thing art, since art has defined itself. It is defined already by the fact that almost everything we consider to be art is obviously designed, in every culture throughout the history of art, a history which began 30,000 years ago. Design is one of the most important things that distinguishes fully developed Homo sapiens from their immediate predecessors, the Neanderthals.

The whole issue of a definition of art had become confused in the later twentieth century for a number of reasons. Most famously, by gestures like Marcel Duchamp’s, where he attempted to exhibit as art an inverted urinal. Most observers still fail to see that he was showing us that, when he turned the urinal on its back, confusing its identity, we could see how its shape could be considered both beautiful and expressive. Duchamp, half artist, half philosopher, was making a strong defense of the Modern theory of art. If the design is right, anything can be art. Duchamp was also aware of something everyone seems to have forgotten. The urinal would have actually been designed by an industrial designer, who probably spent four years in art school.6

Most recently, adding to the difficulty of defining art and reflecting Postmodern theory, complex and interesting visual arrangements of all kinds of found and manipulated objects can appear in museums, conveying important, often political ideas. This is a whole new and significant development in what has been called “visual culture.” Many times these arrangements of forms or found objects, usually “installations,” and often accompanied by video and live performances, can be aesthetically ordered and can fully qualify as art, but many times not. Not all writing is literature either. Profound essays on important themes can be written which would never qualify as literature. Similar essays in visual form are something of a new thing, and the traditional art museum or gallery is often the only venue where they might fit in. However, when brought through the door into spaces normally dedicated to designed art, this has added to the general confusion about what art really is all about. Being in a gallery does not make many of these installations art. Rather, they fall into this new category, “visual culture,” where they have a legitimate place.

In my own training in art history in the center of the Modern age, in the Harvard Department of Fine Arts as an undergraduate, and later, as a graduate student, and also as a graduate of Harvard’s museum program, we were taught that a true aesthetic experience required us to look for the design in any work of art. We learned that the quality of any art form depended entirely on its design — that is, (from my point of view) on its effectiveness in delivering pleasure. And if the design were poor, or not present, as was often the case with examples of Western art, the work would not be allowed to qualify as art and, if we were curators, would not be acquired by our museum. I still have a battered copy of the handbook provided to every student of art history at Harvard, published by the Department of Fine Arts, entitled Outline of the Theory of Drawing and Painting and Principles of Design.7 Fifty-seven pages were devoted to the formal factors of art, i.e., to composition, color, lights and darks: etc. with not a word about subject matter. It should be noted that teaching about form rather than content was the main purpose of the “art appreciation” courses that proliferated in colleges at the time. The understanding was that, to be fully moved by a work of art, the observer had to know about, and look for the design.

As I watch today how almost everyone in museums passes quickly before the works of art, spending at the most two or three minutes with each one, I am not surprised that the critical design factor in art is no longer common knowledge. It takes a little time to enjoy the rich offerings of design, and to apprehend how the work of art is only fully complete when one experiences the interaction of the design and the subject matter. For most people it seems, experiencing art must be like hearing the libretto of an opera without the music. One might be moved, but not very much. Only abstract art requires that attention be paid to the visual factors, since it is pure design unadulterated by subject matter. However the typical viewer, convinced that there is no design in a painting by Jackson Pollock, will never give it enough time to discover that, in fact, Pollock was designing up a storm. That same viewer might not be able to respond to the “realistic” photography of Alfred Stieglitz, an artist obsessed with formal design.

Connecting your consciousness to the design in a work of art is not that difficult. Simply observe how everything in the good work of art fits together. Asking your self these questions is not so much a way of analyzing the work of art, but is simply a way of perceiving it. In a painting, say, by Botticelli, note how the shapes relate to each other, how they harmonize with the flat surface and the overall shape of the surrounding frame. How do the colors and shapes, as well as the paint texture, harmonize with the subject matter? If the elements in a design fail to fit together, fail to meld into a unified whole, then perhaps the image is faulty, and will be disturbing, rather than a source of delectation. An example of visual harmony in a design might be parallel forms. Even forms generating tension by being not quite parallel, would count. Angular shapes would harmonize with other angular shapes. An overall color tonality in a painting, say warm or cool, is a way of effecting unity, both formally and emotionally. Rembrandt’s images are suspended in a liquid warm brown bath.

I like to say that making art is like straightening up your desk. You clear off the surface as much as possible to bring out the unity inherit in the underlying desktop. You square up the papers into piles to effect harmonious relationships between the piles themselves, and with the desktop’s rectilinear shape, and you are on your way to creating a work of art. Poor design is often a matter of the designer making a mess. Of course good or great design is far more complicated than cleaning up a desk top, but it lies in the same direction.

As soon as the museum visitor steps out of the Western tradition in painting and sculpture, (not the decorative arts) most of the art he or she will encounter is obviously designed. Apparent patterns dominate the artistic images of most cultures. It is all you can see in the rooms dedicated to Islamic art. Almost everywhere you turn in the Metropolitan Museum in New York you encounter obvious design. At this point the great virtues of a formalist understanding of art should be apparent. First, in no way does it privilege the “Western tradition.” We can find great art in most cultures of the past and present. Second, seeking out the design in art would give us all access to the immense variety of art forms we might encounter in the world. To derive aesthetic pleasure from the art of any culture, it is only necessary to observe and respond to the design patterns. The design factors in any really good work of art, wherever it originated, would give immediate access to its aesthetic fruits. While the function of an art form from an unfamiliar culture might not be understood, the work itself could never appear alien. The observer would still be positioned to enjoy it as art. And if it is a truly marvelous work, say, a carving by the Maori of New Zealand, one could be totally comfortable with it, and be able to recognize the greatness in something achieved by a people who are otherwise quite foreign. Anthropologists do not really like this way of looking at the art of other cultures. But I ask them, what is wrong with it? As it was observed by Donald E. Brown in Human Universals, the Maori and a Wall Street broker would share more than 400 things in common. The design in art is what makes it universally human.

[1] I always capitalize the word “Modern” when I refer to twentieth century culture, since it was commonly used to designate the period, and the particular style of art that emphasized abstract design over photographic realism. In the same way I would capitalize “Renaissance” and “Baroque.”

[2] For example, the famous Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, or, even today, the Rhode Island School of Design, where every kind of art is taught. The Schools of Design by Quentin Bell, 1963, is the only publication I know of which gives the history of the origins of this most important episode in art history. The sixteen British Schools of Design were founded by Parliament, the first in 1837. The education program, which emphasized geometrical form as the foundation for all art, arguably laid the foundation for Modern art and Modern art theory. The leading theorist, Ralph Wornum, in the basic textbook for the Schools of Design used by students from 1855 to Skidmore College’s art department in the 1920’s, introduced the Modernist idea that design is what relates the visual arts to music.

[3] To mention three early and conspicuous examples: In America, Arthur Wesley Dow’s Composition, 1899; in Britain, Clive Bell’s Art, London, 1913, and Roger Fry’s Vision and Design, London,1920.

[4] The emotional content of colors and shapes is an important theme in Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, first English edition, London, 1914. For Kandinsky the spiritual content of art resided in its design.

[5] This is where I depart from the general understanding of design theory. No one likes to talk about something grand like art causing pleasure. Pleasure is always somewhat suspect in our culture, being associated with inferior sensuality. The association with sensuality I will agree with, the inferiority I won’t. A hedonist strain runs through the subject matter of art throughout art history, and the providing of pleasure is the sole purpose of design in architecture and the decorative arts. The Modernists, after blending the decorative and fine arts in the Art Nouveau, became aware that a decorative component was present in all great art. This is one of the themes of Roger Fry’s Vision and Design. (See note [3] above.)

[6] See the essay devoted to Duchamp’s urinal in this website.

[7] By Arthur Pope, Professor of Art and Design, in editions from 1924 to 1946.