Design or Art?

By Jim McCloskey

I spent a couple strange hours the other day, surfing through Internet references to what I have discovered is a fairly lively Art-versus-Design debate.  What I found was oddly interesting at first, but after a while, I began feeling underwhelmed by the whole discussion, which seemed mostly to be about trying to boil a truly complicated debate down to some essence one writer or another saw as both wise and irrefutable.

Most of the participants in the dialogue, so far as I could tell, were graphic artists of one sort or another, many of whom seemed to want to elevate what they do beyond Design to become Art.  And I agree with these folks that the lines are finely drawn between the two; where I part company with most of them, however, is in my refusal to believe that the distinction is as gravely important as their aspiration makes it out to be.

During this whole exercise, of course, I kept thinking about watershaping and how it fits into the discussion along with architecture and a clutch of other disciplines for which there’s room to consider such high-minded distinctions.  Along the way, there were two points that caught my eye, one practically based, the other a bit broader.

First, there was the thought that Designers work with clients and are to some degree bound into a transaction that places limits on raw creativity and freedom.  By contrast, Artists are effectively their own clients and retain complete control – even if the output is ultimately purchased and passes beyond the artist’s direct purview.

I can think of several people in the watershaping business who come close to meeting the standard for artistry set out here.  It’s a small group, mind you, and I’m aware that even folks on the level of Anthony Archer Wills and David Tisherman can’t escape the fact that they have clients they aim to please.  While those relationships aren’t always intrusive when it comes to crafting the output, it makes it harder to reach a clear conclusion in the debate in absolute favor of their being Artists.

But there’s this:  Michelangelo and Frank Lloyd Wright were ruggedly stubborn and flagrantly insubordinate, but both needed patronage to survive and develop their legacies.  Who would dispute calling them Artists?

The second, broader point that set me thinking asserts that, where Designers solve problems, Artists tend to cause them.  Of course, this one is a slippery slope, basically because it carries an implication that Artists don’t give a damn about either consequences or appearances, which is generally far from the case beyond the more abrasive of the fine arts.  But underlying it is, I think, a great case for preferring to be called a Designer rather than an Artist – particularly with an endeavor such as watershaping.

In my observation of watershapers through the years, I have generally found them to be problem solvers to a rather sublime degree.  For some, it’s figuring out how to fit in a necessary piece of pipe or some other functional detail to make a desired effect possible without impinging on aesthetic virtues; for others, it’s about achieving exactly the right flow using a scupper or fountain head that wasn’t exactly meant to work in the given application.  In other words, it’s all about reaching beyond the specifications and applying inspiration, grounded in experience, to get the job done.

That in mind, I know lots of watershape Designers and appreciate the way they look at something as it is and see a potential in it that transcends expectations.  That’s a gift, and perhaps their greater gift is being able to communicate with clients in a way that elevates the basic conception of what a space might be if there’s the wherewithal to let fly and make it happen.

After reading all about the fine points defining the razor’s edge at which Design might become Art, I’m left with my own wise, irrefutable thought:  If the Design is good – good in the sense that it tells a story and has a meaning and value beyond its raw appearance – it becomes Art by a sort of undefined consensus.

On that level, being a Designer is fantastic; being called an Artist is a worthy cherry on top.

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