Matters of the art

Artists should be wary of trying to create functional objects, while designers do best when they bear fitness for purpose in mind and stay clear of design art, argues Hugh Pearman

All art is, by definition, useless. Or, as sculptor Sir Anthony Caro once cheerfully told me, ’All art is a con trick.’

It’s a con we happily connive at because that is its very point. The moment art is applied to useful, functional things, then it ceases to be art and becomes design.

Take beautiful Italian cars. Yes, there is great artistry in them. You could even describe them as sculptural. You can put them on plinths as much as you like, but they are still cars, with engines and clutches and things inside them. Unless…

An artist may well take a functional, designed object and turn it back into art – consider Fiona Banner’s current tour de force at Tate Britain, Harrier and Jaguar. The two military jets of that name have the malevolent beauty of all well-designed weapons.

However, by taking the carcasses of these two planes and using them as raw material, positioning them at improbable angles indoors, decorating and polishing their surfaces and loading them with meaning taken from their predatory namesakes in the natural world, they cease to be planes and become art instead.

Harrier and Jaguar, being a highly worked piece, is not to be pigeonholed only in the ’found object’ category, the famous conceptual trick immortalised by Marcel Duchamp’s upturned urinal. It hits you on another level as well, the level of craft. You get much the same out of anything by Jake and Dinos Chapman: beyond the absurdity, the flipness, the freak-show horror and the incisive commentary, there is great workmanship there.

Where this all goes wrong is when artists start to think they can somehow also produce functional objects – such as a building or a boat. What could Damien Hirst do with a working boat? Nothing, except decorate it with coloured spots, in the case of the Thames shuttle that plies between the two London Tates.

Antony Gormley is fast going off the rails with his plans for a Mayfair hotel in the form of a crouching man, which looks like Eduardo Paolozzi gone bad. And don’t get me started on the ghastly pile-up of egos that is the Arcelor Mittal Orbit, that tangle of red metal by artist Anish Kapoor, engineer Cecil Balmond and architect Kathryn Findlay that is destined to be the observation tower for the 2012 Olympics.

The moment a work of art acquires a function – particularly when people can go into it – it becomes subject to all manner of regulations that immediately and fatally compromise it as a work of art. By losing the prized uselessness of pure art, it becomes truly useless in its own terms and thus no good for anything.

When it comes to design in all its diversity, the one thing that ties this strange old trade together is what it is not. It is not a profession in the true sense, though it sometimes pretends it is. It is not an art, though ditto. It is not a science. It is itself, and it can certainly produce things of great power and beauty, from a poster to a complete train. But the principal drivers of design are usefulness, function and fitness for purpose. Lose sight of that and you’ve lost everything. Or maybe you’re just in the wrong job.

So, designers – don’t, please, be seduced by ’design art’, as it is sometimes called. Be an artist by all means. Be a designer by all means. Have different lives in the mornings and afternoons if you must. Just don’t try to mix the two mindsets in the one piece. Thank you.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

Latest articles