What’s in a Name?

When a Singapore designer applied for grants from the government’s art council some years ago, he was referred to the national design agency instead because of his profession. But when he did just so, the same proposals were regarded as too artistic to be considered design.

This encounter, and the fact that art and design are governed by separate departments in Singapore (and in most parts of the world), confirm an existing difference between the two. What is art and what is design is something we seem to intuitively know until we try to explain the distinction between them.

Design has its roots in art, having been referred to in the past as the applied arts. Particularly telling was how graphic design — a term coined only in the 1920s — used to be called “advertising art” or “commercial art” and was a means by which many fine artists in Singapore made a living. This backdrop of the fraught relationship between the two explains the tinged perception that design is the ‘selling out’ of art to serve the needs of commerce. While professional designers have since rationalised what they do as problem-solving by offering a function to businesses and society which artists and their personal introspections do not, art has retained a halo of higher calling by seemingly remaining ‘pure’ and freed of any external influence.

This might have been true in the age of industrialisation, when design rose as a profession with the boom in mass production and consumption, but the once seemingly precise divide between art and design has blurred in recent times. Not content with just serving solutions to clients, designers are striking out on their own with speculative designs (or art?) that pose questions, or self-initiated projects (such as this film festival) that demonstrate alternative possibilities of practising design. The centralising of design production in the computer has also democratised its practice and enabled the injection of “personality” into a profession that once strove for objective answers. Designers nowadays have become celebrities whose work, ranging from posters to furniture and even buildings, are increasingly being collected (and produced in limited editions) just like art pieces too.

Conversely, art has been brought down from its pedestal. Movements like Dadaism that celebrate anti-art, and Pop Art’s appropriation of popular culture have attacked the traditional understanding of art by re-introducing everyday imagery and objects that we often encounter as products of design first. Today, it’s also not unheard of for famous artists to collaborate with corporate brands to mass produce design products (or art?) or to have their works sold at auctions for millions of dollars — who’s making commercial art now?

As the boundaries between the two get muddled up, the task of classifying something as art or design becomes increasingly difficult. Why we call something art or design is becoming less contingent on definitive attributes, such as what form it takes or how it is practiced, but instead what we value in each. I find myself asking why isn’t beautiful art a function for our well-being? And why can’t a design that solves an everyday problem be a work of art too?

Art and design are first and foremost acts of human expression. They contain the intentions of their creators, the material of cultures, the spirit of the times, and still leave space for our personal interpretations. Call them works of art or brilliant by design — there is probably some truth in both. Through art and design we try to make sense of the world we live in, and hopefully, use them to create a better one too.

Written for A Design Film Festival Singapore 2014 festival guide.

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