Why Do Architects Want to Be Artists?

barcelonaAn article in the French journal La Croix online on November 4 last year discussed the resentment of the architect Frank Gehry that he was not being thought of as “an artist”. On October 9, 2004, on the ABC’s Comfort Zone radio program, Glenn Murcutt said, “If architecture is not art, it is not architecture”—which amounts to much the same sentiment. These quotations are instances of an existential dilemma that plagues some architects—although they are rarely so explicit about it.

It has existed since Vasari’s day. In Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (published in 1550), the pioneering art historian established for the first time in European aesthetics that painting, sculpture and architecture were “arts”—and all equally valued at a time when the Italian city-states were vying for cultural pre-eminence.

There is a flaw in this concept which has rarely been discussed by art and design theorists. There is clearly a considerable principled difference between (for example) J.M.W. Turner’s 1834 series of paintings of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament and the actual building he represented; similarly between Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Gates of Hell and the bronze doors that Ghiberti made for the Florence Baptistery at the same time that Vasari wrote. Whereas the buildings are necessarily functional, the picture and the sculpture are not—and do not need to be.

Since the Romantic period it has been accepted that painters and sculptors have no necessary duty to support conventions of any sort; on the other hand designers of all sorts (including, of course, architects) only create things that are useful and usable—whether they be a cathedral, an office building, a tractor or a vegetable-peeler. Such things are useless if they are not functional, but this does not apply to works of art.

Functionality is the difference between art and design. In spite of the recalcitrance of the art and design world, this fact has been recognised by the Australian Copyright Council. In its February 2012 Information Sheet “Designs for Functional Articles”, it identified functionality as the principle that distinguishes design from art. It is, in fact, a major difference both logically and practically, which the art and design worlds should acknowledge and respect—but it is usually glossed over. Even worse, this is done by the thoughtless acceptance of the cant expression “it is all art anyway”. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It is imperative that the art and design worlds acknowledge that the broad field of things which Western culture has historically designated “art” has three discernable aspects, of which the most significant and valuable is not necessarily art at all. As enriching as art per se (“fine” art) is to our humanity, a prior—or, at least, coeval—condition is that it can only occur when a degree of material security has been achieved. Thus, the three aspects are design and craft as well as art. Each aspect has had its own theorists, who have usually managed to disregard the other two, although practitioners in each of the three aspects operate according to high ethical and aesthetic principles. Art per se touches the lives of most of us but rarely and peripherally; on the other hand, we live in a world of craft and design.

Design is a value system in its own right and does not need to piggy-back on art to prove its value. In fact, it could be maintained that architecture and town planning are ethically (if not aesthetically) superior to art because of the magnitude and social relevance of the things they create. The dilemma of architects is that, wishing to distinguish their calling from that of designers of more humble items of use, they are—due to the lamentable state of current theory and terminology—forced to seek to call themselves “artists”. The author of that article on Gehry was so stumped as to have to invent the ludicrous neologism “art-chitecte” to characterise a man who is a great functional creator. There could be no clearer example of the deficiency of current art world concepts and terminology. Why would Gehry want to be considered an artist? His Bilbao Guggenheim is as creative as architecture can get. When I saw it, it was every bit as creative as the amusing Koons Puppy that was sited in front of it, and infinitely more socially responsible than anything Koons had ever done.

It must be self-evident that even simply competent architects—let alone “starchitects” like Murcutt and Gehry—have as much right to claim authority in matters aesthetic as do Picasso and Matisse—to which they add their acute social conscience and massive technological knowledge, neither of which artists need (although, of course, many have them). Many architects harbour a private contempt for the social irresponsibility of artists. On the other hand, several architects have also produced works of art with a full understanding of the distinction: Le Corbusier was a brilliant abstract painter and Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid excellent abstract sculptors.

A regrettable instance of architecture unnecessarily and unwisely clinging to the coat-tails of art is exemplified by the article “Is Architecture Art?” in Architecture Australia, March 2016. The authors, John Macarthur and Susan Holden of the University of Queensland, allege: “One of the most successful recent strategies of visual arts institutions has been to include architecture”, citing this as evidence of “institutional recognition for a new direction in art”. They give no indication that they are aware of the functional imperative that distinguishes design from art.

The article includes a number of discontinuities which call for rational discussion. It instances the Tate Gallery’s awarding of the 2015 Turner Prize for art to Assemble, a London design collective, for Granby Four Streets, an urban regeneration project in a run-down part of Liverpool. It is something of a stretch to designate this project “architecture”. Assemble built on work already done by a long-standing urban co-operative of residents who campaigned against the demolition of old houses. It provided plans for the refurbishment of buildings and public spaces and allowed provision of new work and enterprise opportunities.

Second, what can winning the Turner Prize be worth culturally? Former winners have included Damien Hirst for a bisected cow and calf in a tank of formaldehyde, Martin Creed’s room in which a light goes on and off, and Tracey Emin’s infamous unmade bed. Perhaps the Tate has acquired a new social conscience? Perhaps not.

And the article enlarges upon the rise of the “largely functionless” pavilion form—which enables architects to “explore the crossover between the disciplines of architecture and the visual arts”. “Largely functionless” is a point-avoiding term used here to allow the consideration of a building as “art” rather than design. But the pavilion is not “functionless”—largely or small-ly. It is a building which, by definition, is a shelter for humans. That is its function. That it can be little more than a basic shelter makes it accessible for highly innovative (“creative”) treatment.

Macarthur and Holden are the successful applicants for an Australian Research Council grant, with the same title as the article, “to examine how such momentum in the art world is changing the concept of architecture”. The grant application states that “there is no simple answer” to the question, but the article concludes that “the project won’t come up with an answer”—no doubt because the authors believe that it’s “an old debate that can’t be resolved”.

The article also refers to the “synergies between … art [and] the creative economy” but—in common with most who write about this subject—the writers assume that “it is all art anyway”. But design has always inevitably been part of the economy, whereas art only enters the economy when it is sold, as does any commodity.

Terminological confusion in relation to design dates from the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement. This movement—along with twentieth-century Art Deco—was really concerned with functional things, not art per se, but the term “design”, at that time, was used only in relation to drawing or the composition of a work of art. It was not until the inter-war period that design became identified as a concept distinct from both art and craft. In the late twentieth century, designers and design institutions throughout the Western world began to assert their existenceand independence from artso there can be little justification for the University of Queensland’s research application.

The “arrival” of design on the cultural scene was “proven” by the establishment in 2015 of Design Auction London by the art auction house Sotheby’s, followed by Design Auction New York last year. Both sold both historic and new furniture and other design objects. In fact, design has become a cult term. The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) movement, a popular education movement that originated in 1984, uses entertainers to proselytise its messages, but design has been added gratuitously to its name simply because (as a spokesperson said in an e-mail to me): “it enables us to embrace a wide range of topics and ideas”. How much more popular can design get?

Donald Richardson is an artist, art educator and art historian. He was formerly the Superintendent of Studies (Visual Art) in the Education Department of South Australia.


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