Art v. Objecthood: Affront or Opportunity?
Where does one draw the distinction between art and objecthood? For the latest installation in OLIN’s ongoing Theory and Practice symposia, the studio took on this inquiry, one of the most provocative and challenging discussions of design practice. To help us explore this question, its roots, evolution and implications, OLIN welcomed two distinguished speakers—Dr. Kevin M. Richards, Ph.D., Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Chris Cornecelli, Project Architect at Adjaye Associates in New York.
The question itself is a daunting one. The notion that art is objectively definable and distinguishable from the tools, objects and schema of everyday life inherently challenges the collective identity of those who design built and public space—and it even calls into question the very purpose and role of the designer. However, throughout history, designers have continued to find ways in which to elevate their works beyond the realm of functionality.
Dr. Richards opened the conversation by discussing a 1967 essay by Michael Fried, titled “Art and Objecthood,” in which the renowned art critic and Modernist seeks to answer a centuries-old enigma, “what is art?” According to Fried, a distinct difference exists between art and form—what we would consider to be functional, practical, or an aspect of the everyday. An object’s functionality, that is, the very expectation of it to be used, looked at or otherwise experienced, locks the object into the realm of life as it can be perceived by our senses. It becomes static, literal and limits our perception of what it is, has been or could be. Art, on the other hand, has a kind of purposelessness, an autonomy from its surroundings, which allows the beholder to experience transcendence beyond the everyday experience.
This assertion surely is a cause for pause among architects and landscape architects, whose work, many would believe, is by its very nature locked in a state of functionality and purposefulness—and thus can never be considered what Fried concludes to be “the authentic art of our time.” However, it is precisely this state of opposition that was challenged by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the deconstructivist movement in late 20th century architecture, which Dr. Richards explored in detail in his book Derrida Reframed: A Guide for the Visual Arts Student (IB Tauris; London, 2008). By taking the pure forms of architecture, landscape and other site elements, pulling the forms apart and reshaping them in ways that appear irrational, haphazard or purposeless, designers can blur the lines between what is function and what is art.
Fried argues for art which is two-dimensional and unchanging, a form which he believes allows for the aforementioned experience of transcendence. According to Fried, a piece can be defined as art when, “it takes a single second to experience the piece and be forever convinced by it.” As a practicing architect, it is not surprising that Chris Cornecelli takes exception to Michael Fried’s rigid parameters for what makes an object art. He presented the Minimalists—artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris—whose works, Cornecelli explained, “were characterized by a sense of wholeness, one-ness and indivisibility [between] shape, surface and materiality,” and relied on their surrounding contexts as well as the beholders themselves to provide a unique and fluid experience. Cornecelli cited works such as Spin Out by Richard Serra, and Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, pieces that exist within continuously changing landscapes and offer variable, engaging, three-dimensional experiences across time and space, much in the same way that works of architecture and landscape architecture do. In this way, objects can be many things at once, but are never limited to a singular purpose, functionality or definition. Thus, art is created.
As designers of public space, our role may often be brought into question—are projects that serve a functional purpose inherently limited in their artistic expression by the very nature of their functionality? Our challenge then—or perhaps our opportunity—is to bridge the gap between the definitions of art and object. Perhaps then, the users of our works can use their own experiences to arrive at their own conclusions—and maybe that is a form of transcendence in and of itself.