Brian Feeney

Modern Art Might Have Failed Us, But Design Has Not

In an article in the Huffington Post, Alain de Botton asks why our art museums have failed us.

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because Modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as 'reductive.' We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be 'bad art' . . . and that only art which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?

This is a fascinating idea. I think he's right about the corner Modern Art has painted itself into. The art sits/hangs in big white rooms, stripped of context, unable to explain itself. But I also think there's a more interesting question just off to the side. We shouldn't be asking why art museums have failed us, but instead asking what has taken the place of modern art in the public square. I think the answer to that is design.

I remember when one of the most prominent discussions in zines and journals was about the public reputation of design and the importance of avoiding the very issue modern art fell into, namely, not meaning anything. In the 1990s, there was a fear among professionals that Design might be lumped in with Modern Art as something purely aesthetic, and viewed as nothing more than a pretty skin pasted over content. Because of the increasing ubiquity of Photoshop and the growing ease of self-publishing on the Web, professionals were rightly worried their clients would assume they could do the work themselves, and that the prevalence of prosumer design tools would lead to cheaper pay rates for actual designers.

This didn't happen. And that's partly due to the campaign for proving the worthiness of design as something more than looks, as an occupation with depth and heft, that Designers weren't Artists. Design meant something. And if a particular design didn't mean anything, it wasn't successful design. I think most people hiring designers these days understand that when they hire a designer, they are getting much more than pretty new thing. They are also getting a package which includes more useful tools, smarter organization, and more efficient communication.

Design has gone much further than any other art at being "explicitly for something." Having escaped the clutches of being-for-itself, design was freed to solve problems once thought more in the purview of engineers, city planners, or politicians. It is now extremely common to see designers leaving client work to become developers, product creators, or initiators of social movements.

Many of these designers are art school graduates -- or art school dropouts -- and likely began their work in their youth by developing their style first. And it's probable they originally aspired to be career artists, not professional designers. That's kids for you. That was me. But growing up and growing smarter will change you. A serious study of art history leads towards a new understanding of context and of how art's cultural role was different in the past versus what it is today. You move from learning how important Duchamp's "Fountain" was in 1917 into having an awareness of our current ironic detachment from the absurdity of Dada. The eventual takeaway is that modern art no longer has the power to change the direction of culture. It did at one time, but it has lost its influence. We have moved on.

What has supplanted modern art as a cultural influence is design. This is why many of us designers abandoned our dreams of being Artists and instead proudly became Designers. Design is where the work is. Design is where the wheels touch the road. We talk an awful lot more about the design of the newest iPad than we do Cindy Sherman's lifetime retrospection show at MoMA. This is why de Botton is asking the wrong question. He's looking towards modern secular museums to show us something new, when it is real-world design that is right now actively making change and steering culture into new directions.

Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose — to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good once in a while or a little wiser and kinder — and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? Perhaps art shouldn’t be ‘for art’s sake’, one of the most misunderstood, unambitious and sterile of all aesthetic slogans: why couldn’t art be - as it was in religious eras - more explicitly for something?

What de Botton is dreaming of and asking for is already here. It's not modern art. It's design. And it's not happening in museums. It's happening everywhere else. While most great art aspires to little more than the glory of entombment in a museum gallery, design has an actual, functional life in the greater outside world. de Botton is looking in the wrong place. Art museums are for things for which their time has passed. Design lives and breaths and exists with us everyday. It solves our problems. It influence our decisions in (hopefully) positive ways. And it can educate us and show us who we are.

There is no point in expecting modern art to be the influence in culture it once was. Not even a well-curated museum could return to art the power it used to have. It's wishful thinking. This isn't to say art is no longer moving, or beautiful, or shocking, or enlightening, or even occasionally important. It can be, and often is. But it doesn't solve problems, and museums won't replace religious institutions in providing answers to life's big questions.

I do appreciate de Botton's larger goal, which is to ask how we might find or create secular replacements for religious institutions. In his article, he never claims that art museums will replace churches, but only asks why not. I make no similar claim for design, except to say maybe it, and not art, might provide more possibilities.

Coda: I should add that though I believe de Botton has mistakenly neglected to consider design in his theory, I do agree with his suggestion for future museum curators. Museum galleries really might be far more functional if their works were "grouped together [. . .] from across genres and eras according to our inner needs." I would love to see that: museum visits as religious experiences. After all, what he's suggesting is better design.

Further Addendum: I'd like to clarify one thing about the above article. I love art and museums, and I spend a lot of my time looking at and thinking about art. Personally, when I'm in a gallery, rarely am I asking myself, as de Botton says, "What does it all mean?" My usual responses are "Huh", "Wow", "Sure", "Not quite", or "OH SWEET BAJEEBUS THAT IS INSANELY AWSOME". Neither do I think that artists working today are doing futile work. As long as time moves forward, we will need new expressions of what it means to be human. And I don't believe in ever closing the doors on any medium or creative outlet ever ever. We should be moving always upwards and outwards in every way all the time.

Modern art isn't over, as it might seem like I was suggesting. It's only less central to cultural progression as it used to be. Though it might be hard to imagine another single work of art, or even an entire movement, making big, new cultural waves, we should always be open to the possibility.

March 13, 2012