David Bernstein: But does it scare crows?

David Bernstein believes artists create aesthetic work that moves a viewer, but the real artists are the designers that create work that moves merchandise

I endorse Tim Rich’s views (Private View, DW 28 February) on the relationship of art to design. Of the latter he writes ‘beauty is redundant if it doesn’t achieve its functional objective’ and concludes with the simple, undeniable statement that ‘design is a means to an end, not an end in itself’.

Communication begins at the end. What is the end, or purpose? Write it on a Post-it note and stick it somewhere prominent. It is all too easy in the frenzy of creation and the fog of meetings to forget the ultimate objective.

Last month in the Barossa Valley I saw a sign announcing a forthcoming scarecrow competition. ‘How do they judge it?’, I asked my host, envisaging monitors in the vineyards with binoculars and stopwatches measuring the presence or otherwise of winged invaders. ‘By the look.’

And it wasn’t so different when I sat on juries at the Ad Film Festival in Venice. Or in Rome in 50BC. When Cicero had finished speaking the people said, ‘How well he spoke’. But when Demostheses had finished speaking the people said, ‘Let us march’. But then poor Cicero never had a Post-it note. When the term was in vogue, ‘commercial artists’ were usually aware of objectives. The term was meant to distinguish the practitioner from the ‘real’ artist. But to many it was an indication of inferior status.

The difference between art and design, as Rich says, is function. The true end of art is aesthetic satisfaction. It may arouse passions, open eyes, reveal truths, stimulate concern, inspire, elevate, purge, intoxicate and so on. It may move the viewer to action, but action is not essential to its nature – unlike commercial art that cannot afford the luxury of aesthetic satisfaction for its own sake.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German mathematician and philosopher, dissected art appreciation. A work of art elicits a particular satisfaction. ‘No rational process of thought occurs, but an intuitive apprehension.’ In judging a work of art ‘intuitive apprehension’ is uppermost. Not so in the commercial world. It happens, of course, but it must never suffice. The creative director must never say ‘I like (or dislike) it’ without giving reasons.

Why does he like it? More importantly, why should the target respondent like it? More importantly, why should that respondent react in a desired way to the design or message, for example, change or be strengthened in attitude? All this is not intuitively apprehended. It demands a rational process of thought. And the basis for that judgement is ultimately commercial. Will the communication somehow stimulate the respondent towards purchase? This is not to assert that all communications should aspire to the condition of direct marketing. It’s simplistic to make purchase the purpose of each item of communication, or sales the measure of everything. But if we ask basic questions of our strategy – what are we trying to achieve and how will this course of action help us achieve it? – then our interrogation ends in a commercial statement of sorts.

The professional designer or writer knows that all items of marketing communication are facing in the same direction – towards purchase. The route may be long and indirect, but all items – corporate identity programme or price ticket, annual report or catalogue, corporate ad or sales ad – are heading the same way. It would be perverse to do the opposite.

Art moves. Commercial art moves merchandise. Obvious? Of course. Yet commentators in the 21st century still feel the need to spell it out. Why? Do designers and copywriters feel inferior, regard themselves as bastard artists?

Designers and art directors share with ‘real’ artists skills, technologies, tools and terminology. The downside, of course, of the term ‘commercial art’ is that some adherents regarded it, not as a separate category, but as a subset – for example, a form of art. All artists were therefore ‘real’. Moreover, the frequent trips across the border seemed to encourage this belief, especially when Shell and Transport for London recruited leading artists to contribute to ad campaigns, providing no more than an unobtrusive commercial frame for their canvas.

Examine any compilation of the period (such as The Shell Book of Posters) and you’ll see two types of work – paintings with messages attached and integrated graphic design. The latter, coherent and hardworking, were the products of bastard artists; the former, decorative and accomplished, the products of real artists – but bastard graphic designers.

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