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Blind to Design: Redefining Context January 9, 2008

Posted by olywood in art & science.
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The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once remarked that advertising would go down in history as the greatest art form of the twentieth century.
At the time of course it would have been hard to predict that by the new Millennium advertising would still be regarded as little more than the whore of art, a quick way to pay off the bills between real projects, something superficially appealing and cosmetically misleading to help smooth off the rough edges.
For all the Jame Reid and Peter Saville record-sleeves in the attic, the generation that grew up with design often aesthetically inseparable from all the ‘proper art’ still can’t seem to accept design as a bonafide properly grown up art-form.
For most design only truly elevates its station through the plundering patronage of the artist, or if its very lucky; a public exhibition at the hands of the gallery owner.

None of which is anything new, in fact the artworld’s appropriation of design has been something of an ongoing trend since the art boom of the mid 50s when the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein first adopted design as their ‘cause célèbre’.
Despite the inherent problems of lifting commercial aesthetics for the purposes of self expression, in their defense it’s always been argued that this was all just good natured cultural philanthropy on their part- letting the ad men have their moment in the recessed spotlights.

Although tellingly we don’t remember the names of those forgotten few who originally designed the iconic Campbell soup ads, we only remember Warhol, chic Manhattan loft spaces, films shot on grainy super-8, and of course the throng of trannies.
While it could be argued by the cynic that the pop-art mob were simply exploiting designers for their own ends, we also shouldn’t forget that designers have never exactly been masters of self promotion either.

Design’s distinct lack of cultural cache might also be somewhat related to the symbols its adopted along the way. The ubiquitous cattle-stamp of disposable consumerism; ‘the barcode’ in particular has probably done damage than anything else when it comes to inauthenticating design.
With the aesthetics of design now inextricably linked with our low-end consumables design ‘the process’ starts to look a little past its cultural expiry date.
And when consumer faith in the cultured capabilities of design is this unsettled, only the discrete price tag of the gallery can hope to re-establish niche market appeal, design as sophisticated relic again – contrived exclusivity for the credulously rich.

There’s certainly never been a better time to trade in cultural security for insecure capitalists either. There’s a lot of money to be made in the ever expanding market of middleclass aspirations and design is practically begging to plucked off the assembly line.
Art is allowed to cannibalise and exploit design of course, that’s what art does, and design (in theory) has always had the opportunity to play art at its own game.
But advertising is still advertising, it only truly transcends itself once its peeled off the barcodes and pinned itself against the wall.
And that’s always been the rub for the ad-men, the peripheral language of commerce effectively swamps the main content; forever discrediting their creations as the real deal – art with a capital A.
Their work requires a higher grade of pushy marketing rhetoric if we’re to put aside our prejudices and take any of it seriously. You can use advertising to sell art, but if you want to sell advertising as art to us, that still takes the marketing expertise of an artist.

The Gallery is The massage

The art gallery is really just the twilight-zone when you actually think about it, nothing is what it seems and everyone walks around in a state of dazed confusion.

The contemporary gallery of course is a very different beast to the fine art institutions of the past, the contemporary gallery doesn’t really exist in order to display art, it exists in order to displace design.
Lifted from their natural habitats commercial objects are turned into de-commissioned relics ready for inspection, strangers to their past lives as objects of pure function.

But to be able to pull any of this off the gallery owner first has to adopt the interior designer’s flair for décor, each exhibit must exist in zen-like isolation – anchored in surgically anesthetised white space.
Every possible associative trigger, every conceivable motif of detracting unsophistication must be removed; freeing up the necessary conceptual space for disbelief to suspended itself within.
In this commercially-fumigated interior, the atmosphere should now be one of infinite plausibility, where objects of mass consumerism moonlight freely & undetected as self-knowing, cutting edge statements of intent.
Commercial associations should fail to thrive and cease to exist here, allowing new associations of sophistication to take root and germinate in their place.

It has to be set up this way of course because we have a natural blind spot for content, rarely if ever in fact do we engage with it directly.
As beings of highly evolved laziness we’re far happier referring to the context and simply outputting what ever it is we assume to be the appropriate response.
Hence objects in a sophisticated environment will invariably transform into objects of sophistication, and objects in a disreputable environment will seemingly take on the same dodgy qualities as their surroundings.
Context doesn’t just colour our perception it dictates the entire state of play, and the gallery is an expert in playing up to our hidden prejudices.

Of course none of this would work without that deferential pull on us; that inner voice whispering “comply”, and just like Paul McKenna tells his ex-audience participants since gone mentally awol, you can’t complain because the illusion couldn’t have even occurred without your willing consent anyway.
And Perhaps we shouldn’t either, it is us after all who allows the gallery to play around inside our heads, set the terms and conditions, and then aesthetically bully us into a corner the moment we try and question any of it.
In psychobabble speak we’d be the‘facilitator’.

We know deep down of course that we haven’t really got any reason to allow ourselves to be intimidated into unquestioning cultural subservience, but we still do regardless.
Probably because the gallery is claws deep in heritage, and you can’t argue with heritage. And you certainly can’t argue with those indoctrinated but-don’t-they-know-it curators.
We’re far too secretly impressed by it all anyway, the convincing establishment bluster, the sense of something ‘cultured people’ do, the spectacle of a near-extinct brand of authoritarianism of the sort that makes us want to be part of it all before it’s cosigned to the annals of history for good.
And like all institutions with a past the gallery has instant walk-through access to our mental plumbing anyway, that dangerous way of absolving us of responsibility; getting us to relinquish our intellectual and moral sensibilities without us ever feeling like we’re personally risking anything.
It’s ok to enjoy a bit of tat in a 4×4 room because it’s just another Milgram experiment in which the authorities in badges will take the heat for anything that might come back to haunt you.
Turn up the dial and enjoy your human perversities.

What’s your Pleasure Mr.Cotton?

Beyond Mckennaesque slights of hand and subliminal manipulation, the gallery does admittedly provide a reasonably diverse range of services to a fairly broad set of people.
For the city high earners tired of sycophantic yes men and over pampered egos, the gallery offers the next level up in psycho-sexual masochism – Public humiliation at the hands of a civic dominatrix who’ll patronise you in front of your friends and then confuse you into buying something you’re not sure you understand let alone like.
And for those who never really had a ‘drugs phase’ or those that just cant afford risking their mental health by dabbling anymore, the gallery offers a reliably safe alternative to the garbled logic of the acid trip. Inconsequential objects become life changingly significant – nothing is too mundane to be rendered meaningful.
Even the Sunday papers lot get something out of it all; a trickling target of risiblity, perfect for when all the real news stories have dried up.
In fact going purely by first impressions the gallery seems to offer something for everyone, but there’s still something missing.

It can’t be a lack of virtues, because the public and private gallery has plenty of those – bringing public attention to life’s overlooked marvels, providing a decent respite from the knowingness (the bad kind) of the highstreet, offering an impervious sanctuary for those who burn with an inner weirdness that pop culture alone cannot tend to.

It would all work like a Swiss timepiece in fact were it not for the self-assuming slumber that seems to have become the gallery’s trademark disposition over the years; too quick to rely on the proceeded reputation, a little too eager to lull in the familiar comfort of those cemented hierarchies, the system has knitted itself into a never ending series of safety nets from within.
This postured laziness seems to have blighted the work ethic and cultural life cycle of both audience and contemporary artist alike. The artist works out early on in their career that the gallery itself can make their whole statement for them; exhibiting works that often wouldn’t even be recognisable as art outside the gallery space.
While the audience increasingly falls into the trap of expecting and depending on the gallery to define this whole art thing for them; waiting for the final gesture of appropriation before issuing aesthetic acceptance.

  All Hail the Monolith!

Like the student who can do critical thinking inside the class room but for some reason never outside, the gallery encourages domain-dependency from all angles; leaving aesthetic appreciation terminally context-bound to the exhibition space.
Non-withstanding the effect of context on our perception, i suspect that this is partly related to a primal vestige left over from the days when having a sloped head didn’t mark you out for social exclusion, and dinner was something you spent most of your time chasing.
We evolved to place value in the huge, the vista-spanning, the immovably present. Whatever posed a threat or conversely could be turned to your advantage looked down on you – never the other way round.
Predator or prey, Turner prize or mate. We want art that’s monolithic, that stares down at us from its perch; commanding the full breadth of its allotted space.
Art in small dimensions just doesn’t work for us, just like a ‘would be’ pint-sized leader, rightly or wrongly we just cant bring ourselves to respect it.
The knock on effect of all this on the world of design is that we end up placing little value on its efforts – magazines, webart, record sleeve designs, cd-cases all lose out from the constraints inherent within their respective formats.
Too small to effectively grab our attention, even if we do notice them we probably wouldn’t bother ascribing them any meaningful cultural value anyway. We’re comfortable with what we know, and that’s art as towering m-o-n-o-l-i-t-h.

Besides the more obvious problems of logistics and parking for the ‘just looking’ crowd and the huge headache of inflated prices for those who actually want their art waiting for them when they get home.
The central premise gone askew here is the assumption that the gallery should not only physically house art, but should act as a selective arbitrator of taste on our behalf.
In going along with this we can become tasteful connoisseurs of course, but only by default.
With most of thinking done for us, the gallery offers little more than a safe arena for pretend subversion, art appreciation with mouth guards and crash mats.
Nothing is truly challenged here because the dictum ‘anything is art’ only holds as long as you’re inside the gallery.
Once outside it’s business as usual, any notion of meaning beyond prescribed function collapses under the absence of any critical scrutiny; unmade beds are just something to sleep on, advertising is just there to sell and comicbooks exist solely for the entertainment of kids and stunted adults.
This near instantaneous revision of the gallery’s lesson is a great shame since gallery exhibits in their defense, do often have one very important point to make – everything no matter how seemingly incongruous has aesthetic merit, anything in theory can be beautiful.
But for those ideas to transcend the gallery space requires an effort on the part of the public to think beyond the artist and beyond the constraints of the exhibition space.
Solely challenging conventions of taste in an arena in which conventions don’t exist anyway is getting kitted out in speedos and goggles in order to shock the ‘unsuspecting’ public idling down at the local swimming baths.

Drawing upon equal measures of commitment and sheer bloody-mindedness, context & format respectively must be psychically exorcised and internally dissolved in order to fully revive content again.
Ostensibly since the only real difference between a Peter Saville sleeve design and an abstract wall-hanger is about three quarters of a metre each side and a 30 grand mark up, there’s as much money to be saved expanding your artistic horizons as there is cultural ground to be gained.
Although the beauty of design and highstreet illustration doesn’t simply lie in the financial savings incurred, it rests in the reassuring contentment that any value you ascribe it will never become muddled or mixed up with the value added on after by the market place.
Design is the real deal, art whenever you decide it to be.
It doesn’t need to be procured or hunted down either, the masterpieces of the supermarket shelves live on under your bed, in the draw, down beside the chair.
Rediscover your own junk, wipe off the dust, see past the format, look deep into the content and osmose. Just don’t go hanging any of it on the wall.

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