Monday, September 12, 2022

Still working on this

I first heard of Edward Tufte when I began seeing this image in an ad for The Visual Display of Quantitative Information in the NYRB, decades ago. 
It's a beautiful graphic, but it's still a graphic. It does its job extremely well, so well that it becomes interesting in itself, but not that interesting. Later as he became famous, Tufte moved into art, or what he thinks is art, opening a sculpture park, and in 2010 a gallery in NY. The gallery's been closed for years. It was always obvious he didn't get the point, but that was interesting too. 

Design is function and form. Tufte could have gone into industrial design but he wanted something else. He doesn't understand that art is more than design: it's idiosyncrasy and idiosyncratic specificity. And now I have to back up.

Art is not utilitarian. It's always the continuation of a tradition. In periods of crisis, when the traditions seem no longer to make sense, they're never thrown away: they're transformed. Clicking the link, and clicking again you''ll read this
If a character in a novel lights a cigarette, the cigarette is part of a work of art. In a play the cigarette is a prop. In the older definition of art objects the craft supplied a formal logic internal to the piece. The iconography supplied a formal logic external to it. For relics as opposed to artworks the logic was external only: absent its place in a narrative a thighbone is a thighbone, a cigarette is just a cigarette, a madeleine... etc.

That's from a discussion of Duchamp. He made pieces of design into art by placing them within a narrative. Picasso as a craftsman, a maker of things, found another way to continue a tradition, but at his best he didn't know what the fuck he was doing. He kept his best painting rolled up under his bed for years, because he didn't know what to think of it.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Of course design, qua design, can be more. 
A link to the manuscript. [p 74]

Eric Hobsbawm:

Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history; and for the historian of culture, one of the most central.

Yves Saint Laurent was three when he pointed out to his aunt that her shoes and dress didn’t match. His statement can be designated an objective truth in the terms of the system in which he had already, and precociously, educated himself. At the age of three he was acknowledged as a Judge. But systems are always changing and are always in the process of becoming. Representational systems ossify into formal systems that outlast their role as representation: forms are still used even as they become brittle. And as I described in Manet and Picasso, and Duchamp and Warhol, this is the crisis that defines modern art, which is no more or less than the art of a culture in crisis. Sometimes forms are taken up in new ways, as in Duchamp’s literary objects. Eisenstein’s favorite author was Dickens. With film the 19th century tradition moved onto a different track, but in art school we studied Vertov by which definition Eisenstein was simply a maker of popular film.

And all of that brings me to this. A short film produced by Tufte about a design teacher. The talking heads are former students, all of them in commercial design and advertising. It's a wonderful primer on design but it's also an art history lesson on the origins of Pop art. Most people don't know that the designer of the pattern on the Brillo boxes Warhol copied was a "fine artist" an abstract expressionist, with a day job. And one of my old teachers, Abe Ajay, gave Warhol his first job in NY.  

...an arch modernist, a friend of Ad Reinhardt who worked with him at The New Masses, [Abe] used to complain that Beethoven ruined his music with images. "All those wonderful notes and then... Birds!!" [p.65] 

Abe was a snob, and conflicted beyond reason. 

Design, as design, is a craft. Craft so specific that it draws an audience back to it again and again, is art. Much of post-war "modern art" is the art of students of design who turned to making something no longer utilitarian, something without function. They used what they knew to make something more.

But again, because I've said this so many times, the fact remains that filmmakers have a better, richer, understanding of pictorial art than those who now called themselves "artists". And this is a little film about design. A bad film by Scorsese is still a better example of "art".

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