Obviously this is neither the first nor the last word on this topic and it will appear again on this weblog. I was inspired to think about it (again) while reading Kanya Hara's "Designing Design".
"Art is an expression of an individual's will to society at large, one whose origin is very much of a personal nature. So only the artist knows the source of his own work. this loftiness is what makes art so cool.
Design on the other hand is basically non self expression, instead it originates in society. The essence of design lies in the process of discovering a problem shared by many people and trying to solve it. Because the root of the problem is within the society, everyone can understand plans for solutions and processes for solving the problem, in addition to being able to see the problem from the designer's perspective".
From my own perspective art, whether dance, literature, music or painting, is the expression of an emotion or an idea with the emphasis on the emotion because the idea is more likely to stem from the emotion than the other way around. And the expression of the emotion or idea in its purest form is the more successful the less it relies on representation.
The paradox is that the more you attempt to clarify the emotion (by using representation), the more you mask the emotion. And hence the work transitions closer to design.
So the emotion expressed by a Rothko is both clear and profound regardless of the interpretation you place upon it. The emotion expressed in a Ken Done is (often) diluted by the representation and hence often referred to as design rather than art. Rothko has achieved a much more profound and memorable effect using fields of colour and texture.
This does not rule out representation in fine art. A great ballet dancer can move to evoque a real life activity without diluting the emotion conveyed by the dance. A skillful painter can evoque deep emotion in a haystack or a pile of leaves (yeah I'm thinking of William Dellafield Cook) and great writer can evoque emotion through words.
So while a good work of art is open to interpretation, a good piece of design conveys a message. This way to the bathroom. I am a very fast and expensive car. I am an object which has been crafted by someone with great conviction and skill. I am a signpost (web site, magazine advertisement etc) for a company whose operators have a deep conviction for innovation and quality.
As a small boy I was deeply moved by a relatively small reproduction of Guernica in a paperback book on art. I don't remember if I knew who Picasso was but I had certainly no knowlege of the Spanish Civil War, let alone the fact that this image was in response to the events of that war. And yet somehow I knew instantly there was something pretty heavy duty going on in this image, and whatever it was that was going on, had somehow been conveyed in this small average quality reproduction. That is the real skill in art, to convey an emotion which is open to interpretation, but none the less convincing in its' impact.
Design on the other hand solves a problem and needs to be specific. Dellafield Cook can probably convey the same emotion in a pile of leaves that he can with a pile of Hawkesbury River rocks. But if you're not sure whether the picture in the sign that points to the toilet is a male or female, (I've had that experience) then the designer hasn't solved the problem or conveyed the full context of the idea.
So that beautful bowl you admire? Well, do you put oranges in it or do you contemplate what its' maker had in his thoughts and keep it on you bookshelf?