How would you define the differences between design and art?


Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) 

Human psychology operates according to categories defined by labels. Once a different label is applied, should it not follow that there is a difference in substance?

Which brings us to the labels of art and design. Obviously there is some overlap but are there any differences in substance that warrants things being allocated to each category?

The general convention is that if something can’t be used, then it is art. If it can be used, then it is design. Then we have the likes of Marcel Duchamp who stuck a functional item like a urinal in an art exhibition to blur the lines once more. Admittedly, you can’t really use a urinal in a gallery once the plumbing is disconnected lest security soon escort you out the door. In that regards, the urinal removed from the function it was created for becomes a work of art. Patrons can then admire the artistic talents that governed its designer. Confused? Good. Duchamp would be happy.

Anyway, some people who have embraced the labels of designer or artist have tried to define the difference, usually in ways that add to the prestige of their own label. For example, designer Henrik Fisker proposed,

“If design isn’t profitable, then its art.”

This obviously begged the question of whether something stayed art if it were profitable.

Artist David Hockney had a view more complimentary to his profession when he proposed,

“Art has to move you and design does not, unless it is a good design for a bus.”

So there we have it. Art is useless, unprofitable but it moves you. Meanwhile, design is functional, profitable but easily forgotten as kind of  background visuals. Agree?


4 thoughts on “How would you define the differences between design and art?

  1. Another difference might be that design principally is a secondary purpose of something else, such as decoration on a bus, or the aesthetics of advertising. In that sense design is packaging, whereas the art object isn’t in the service of something other than itself. And I guess this is what Warhol blurred when he exhibited Campbell’s Soup Cans as painting. Looking back, I’m not sure that these were really positive developments. Duchamp’s urinal, Warhol’s commercial art, and Koon’s kitsch question whether functional design, commercial art, and kitsch are ultimately better than traditional art, and conclude that indeed they are. Well, looking back, I’d say they were wrong, and their contribution was merely to get us to look at those more plebeian objects in a new context, but this has backfired. Duchamp changed something, and in doing so gutted artists. Authority over what was valuable in art was taken away from artists, who could formerly insist their work had inherent value, and given to the art establishment: now the gallery or exhibit decided what is art. Art is what is displayed by authority within the gallery context, and over time it’s become obvious that the authority in question is decided by money. Warhol, and then Donald Trump, declared business the best art. And that’s where we are today.

    • I agree with you that the gallery (that had lots of wealthy patrons) decided what was art and that decision was decided by how much the art sold for. I also agree that it took art to quite a negative space, but I am starting to wonder if we are post-gallery power to put crap in a gallery, charge its comparable weight in gold and ride the wave of bemused publicity to fame. There are just too many multiple means of communication and too many artists putting shit online and not getting the bemused publicity. Looking at the top selling artists of 2013, there is a mix in there between artists are there for their business savy and others for genuine skill. I think we are moving backs into a period where iconic art will actually be there more to the quality of the work rather than the gallery connections. It may take another couple of decades but I think it is inevitable.
      According to 2013 auction results, the Top 20 best-selling contemporary artists are as follows:
      Anyway, here’s the list:
      1. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) American graffiti artist.
      2. Gerhard Richter (b.1932) German postmodernist painter, photographer.
      3. Christopher Wool (b.1955) American artist noted for his ‘word paintings’.
      4. Jeff Koons (b.1955) American Neo-Pop artist.
      5. Zeng Fanzhi (b.1964) Chinese expressionist painter.
      6. Bruce Nauman (b.1941) US postmodernist sculptor, installationist.
      7. Zhou Chunya (b.1955) Chinese Neo-Expressionist artist.
      8. Peter Doig (b.1959) Scottish contemporary painter.
      9. Chen Yifei (1946-2005) Chinese oil painter.
      10. Damien Hirst (b.1965) Young British Artist, installationist.
      11. Mark Grotjahn (b.1968) US contemporary abstract painter.
      12. Sigmar Polke (b.1941) German Neo-Expressionist painter, photographer.
      13. Andreas Gursky (b.1955) German art photographer, computer artist.
      14. Anish Kapoor (b.1954) India-born large-scale sculptor.
      15. Yang Feiyun (b.1954) Chinese realist painter.
      16. Richard Prince (b.1949) American conceptual artist.
      17. John Currin (b.1962) American figure painter.
      18. Ai Xuan (b.1947) Chinese realist painter.
      19. Yoshitomo Nara (b.1959) Japanese Pop sculptor.
      20. Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958) Chinese Cynical Realist painter.

      • I think the business model of art may be coming to an end as well, as it is the repudiation of art, and people may grow hungry again for art. On the creative end there’s tons of visual art being made, which is obvious if one prowls around much on Instagram. As you seem to point out, there isn’t a single hegemonic authority on art anymore, or at least not one that commands everyone’s attention. Officially, art may be the business model, but that’s according to the power of business itself, crowning itself artist and ruthless opportunist (having it’s cake and eating everyone else’s too). On a more important level, art is what people are looking at, and that’s mostly going to be what appears in their social media feeds. Most likely, however, that’s going to be another lowest common denominator. I only hope there’s any room for real artists to flourish as well as garbage, or perhaps not as well (that’s too much to ask), but for there to be room at all for survival. That’s all I personally ask, and I’m not getting it.

      • I don’t think the lowest common denominator has ever been the business model or the secret of success in visual art. To the contrary, the post-war war business model has tried to alienate as many as possible as a way of attracting attention. If we get a return to popular art reaching iconic status, I can only see that as a good thing as overall, I think the public makes the best selections. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Goya, Xu Behong, Hiroshige, Mozart, Beethoven etc These are artists that have stood the test of time because what they have made resonates across generations, class and even commercial opportunities.

        As for the personal artistic opportunities, it would be nice to make art full time but I make more money from other means and this gives me more freedom to create un-commercial art and art for myself. It also keeps me engaged with new experiences and the world. I lived in China and Japan as I could get work that gave me time and space to paint but the experiences of living there were hugely influential for my art. I keep working towards the dream of being able to solely live on art but if it never occurs, I am not too fussed.

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