Mind the gap

In Møllendalsveien 61 lies the University of Bergen’s Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design: KMD.

Here you can find people studying art, visual communication, interior and furniture design. 

We are all creative people, eager to experiment, express ourselves and make things, 

whether functional or abstract, commercial or poetic. 

We all have that in common, we are all creators. 

We are working with the same materials, the same methods, often producing the same things. 

However, there is something separating us. 

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A gap. 

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In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to explore it, this gap I kept stumbling upon in my studies. The gap between Art and Design. You might have noticed it as well. Or maybe not. A gap can be so small, barely even there, but can it still have consequences for artists and designers in the long run?  Maybe it’s time for us to acknowledge it?

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 The Bauhaus school was founded in 1919 with the idea of unifying the practices of art design and architecture under the same roof. In 2019, we started our school year by celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Bauhaus and what it represented. For a whole week, all students worked together in workshops, all as equals, culminating the period with a party we all took part in designing, a common space where we all got to know each other a bit better, an interesting and hopeful start to the year. However, this introduction turned out to be a utopian fantasy of an otherwise disappointing reality, and when it was time to “board the train” and start our journey, we had our first encounter with the gap.

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I am currently midway in my third semester of a bachelor's in design with focus on Visual Communication. In the past year and a half, we’ve learned a bit about everything: color, composition, typography, illustration, animation, interactive media, coding, bookbinding, logo- and symbol design. Since our first week we really haven't had any collaboration or classes in common with the art students. One of the professors even told us not to disturb them on our first day of school.

 

Every Monday, we have lectures from working designers talking about their practices and projects. A lot of them are innovative and interesting, awakening a lot of questions and presenting creative solutions to problems. It has made me think of the field of design in a whole new way. Design is not just about pretty or functional things. It’s about creating innovative solutions to complex problems. Sometimes it’s also about asking questions and collaborating with other practices. It expands so far that it got me thinking about its similarity to art. I’ve seen exhibitions by artists presenting design as work and works by designers that seem very artistic to me. However, I can’t really pinpoint what separates them. They are so close that they almost blend. At the same time, I see a big distance that keeps bothering me. 

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Every semester we get three weeks where we get to work on a project of our choice. I chose to spend this period exploring the workshops in the faculty. There I met students I had not talked to before and got to see them in a different light. Furniture and spatial design students experimenting with screen printing, art students working with lithography to mass produce posters. During those weeks I saw the two fields overlapping more and more. Designers, artists – we were all creative people, just doing what we loved. I couldn’t see a big difference between us. Weren’t we all working with the same methods and producing the same things?

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I asked an art student for their opinion and got an answer that got me more confused: Art was meant to be a personal practice, you were not making it for anybody else but yourself. In my head, all the artist commissions of the past were floating around. Was then the Mona Lisa not art? What about Michelangelo's mural at the Sistine chapel? Isn’t this way of looking at art very new? 

 

It also got me thinking, have artists from the past really been designers as well? A lot of known artists have designed objects for a specific purpose, objects that were qualified as art back in the day. Are all designers' artists?  Is design just an artistic way of making money? Or is it a way of solving problems with art? Another argument was that art was often unique. There was only one object, a relique. It didn’t add up for me. It is more complicated than that, isn’t it? I wondered if all art students thought like that and then realized I had hardly talked to any. The gap grew bigger and more apparent in my head.

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After thinking about the question a lot and going a bit crazy, I went to the library as I often do in times of need. Outside of the building I could see leaves flying around and the grass pointing in all directions at once, mimicking the thoughts inside my head. The art history section provided me with a lot of examples that just left me more and more confused. Flipping through the pages on the first book on Ancient art, I came across a lot of sculptures. Then I started seeing typography, compositions and patterns, carefully arranged, harmonically on a tomb. I also saw walls decorated with beautiful compositions of colours and organic shapes. Someone definitely sat down and designed that. The same thing happened while peeking through a book on Art Nouveau, one on Mexican art and another on Renaissance art. It was all art, yes, but there was clearly a design process behind it. There were clearly commissions, they all had a function.

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I kept looking until I finally found a book titled Design (not equal to) art, which stole my attention completely. It discussed mainly artists/designers that had been affected by these terms and whose works were overlooked because they didn’t fall into one category or the other. In her article, On the Relationship of Art and Design, Barbara Bloemink writes:  “The separation of “fine” art from design is a fairly recent western concept and has only been considered an issue during certain eras. So too is the idea, still prevalent, that art is “non-functional.” Throughout Western history, art has functioned as religious, ideological and political propaganda, economic currency, commodity, decoration, and as a vehicle for personal self-aggrandizement. The historical delimitation of art and design has often been imprecise, resulting in greater or lesser congruence. As a result, a surprising number of individuals from the past whom we identify today primarily as artists also gained acclaim for their functional designs.”(Bloemink, 2004, p.18)

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I found this article informative and thought provoking. It was a relief to see that I wasn’t the only one pondering over this question, and that there even existed a book discussing the subject and agreeing with a lot of the thoughts I had floating around in my head. The article then delved deeper into the history of art and design and discussed how both practices have been reinventing themselves throughout time. For example, how there seemed to be a seamless border between the functional and decorative arts during the Renaissance, the Constructivism movement, and during the Art Nouveau period. There was however a period by the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century when fine art and the decorative arts in Europe became increasingly segregated, when painting and sculpture were considered as the highest form of art, and where all other work struggled to get recognised. Another important break between art and design came again in the 20th century with Abstract Expressionism. It had emphasis on pure painting, the individual, hand-wrought gesture of making, and the personal psychological expression of the artist. The article ends by discussing how a new attitude toward design as superficial “decoration” remained prevalent throughout the 1960s and 1980s, maybe even stretching as far as today.

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It appears that the gap between art and design has been opening and closing throughout time. Going back to the present and looking at all the new design work appearing right now, I feel like we are heading towards a unification yet again. I find that quite promising. Then why does the distance still feel so prevalent? This got me thinking about our faculty and how isolated every department feels. Then maybe the gap is a local one?

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I borrowed a recorder and started a journey through the school, asking everybody I met the same question: “Is there a difference between Art and Design?”

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I was looking for an answer, a pattern, a connection or a change of perspective. In my journey I ended up in unknown corners of the building, places I wouldn't have dared to explore, had I not had a cause (and a microphone to shield myself). I discovered new rooms, got to see thought-provoking art projects and talk to a lot of new and interesting people. Maybe I got them thinking. I started a discussion and discovered that people felt this gap was a local problem within our faculty and here in Norway.

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I got very different answers from the people I interviewed. In the beginning, I thought people from the same departments would answer similarly, but that wasn’t the case. Even students in the same class differed a lot. In the end, it came down to every individual and how they saw the world. However, most people agreed that there was a big gap in this institute, and they wished to be more connected. Art students didn’t know much about us, just as we hardly knew anything about them. Some professors wished to have more classes together, with both artists and designers. Other professors drew a clear line between the fields.

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A clear pattern emerged among the exchange students I asked. Apparently, the distance between the two became more apparent here in Norway. In the rest of the world the gap seemed almost nonexistent.

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An answer I found interesting was: “Within our human lifetimes and memories the idea of what art and design are and the boundaries that separate them is something new, and the very fact that you are asking this question means that you are in a position where you are trying to figure out what these things are and define them under shifting circumstances”. If this is true, I really hope we are heading toward a unification of the fields, because I feel like both could benefit from each other. I’ve seen some examples of it happening in other parts of the world, so why not here?  

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After asking around some more, I learned that institutions need to put labels on projects in order to apply for funding. Here in Norway, the government separates the two fields in a crucial way; design pays taxes, while art doesn’t. It comes down to money after all. Apparently, if you want your work to get funded it all comes down to how you present yourself, and sometimes whether you do it as an artist or a designer settles it.

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Another interesting thought stated: “We can't put historical labels on things that are new, things we are trying to define right now.” This was something that really changed my perspective. It is true that the world we live in is under constant development after all, and thanks to technology it is happening faster and faster, and we can choose to acknowledge it and evolve with it. Perhaps all these outdated labels are just limiting us, the words we use might have the power to shape our reality. Another professor I asked even found both the word artist and designer to be limiting and called himself a creative practitioner instead

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Another thought that kept emerging during the interviews was the fact that designers and artists have different roles in society. Designers were expected to fix the world while artists had more freedom to do whatever they wanted. I found this thought to be a bit problematic. In my opinion, we are all responsible for making the world better, whether we are artists or designers, in whatever task we are working on, we can always make choices that contribute to a better future. Whether it is using sustainable materials, recycling or just asking questions through our work. I think artists need to be educated on these practices as well. The pressure to make the world a better place should not only be on designers.

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I started this journey wanting to explore the distance between art and design and find out why there was a distance at all. Eventually, I ended up discovering a distance in our faculty. I think a lot of us are stumbling on a gap that shouldn’t really be there. We are all creative people after all, maybe we should work together towards finding a creative solution to this problem. 

So DO mind the gap! And let's do something about it!

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References  

Bloemink, B. (2004). Design [DOES NOT EQUAL] Art. London, UK: Merrell Publishers, p. 18.

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