Systems as Design as Art: Finishing Bruno Munari’s Sentence

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The Value of Design

March 28, 2019

To paraphrase Bruno Munari’s brief history of art: it’s been slowly losing “bits and pieces.” Art started with narrative, and came to instead favor “pure visuality” (Suerat). Then it lost natural representation (Kandinsky). Shades of color were eliminated next (Mondrian) until eventually paintings were single colors (Klein), then all black (Reinhardt). Finally, the picture was cut and burned (Fontana, Burri). Now what?

Artists have to find something to interest people of today, an especially difficult challenge in this age of visual distraction and media saturation. Munari talks about contemporary art of his day turning to stainless steel and seagull droppings, bits of scrap metal with solder, and live animals. He describes artists desperate for a “point of contact,” wanting “at all costs” to make the viewer participate.

“But what is at the bottom of this anxiety that drives artists to abandon safe traditional techniques and certain markets, and to sell mass-produced articles in shops and not in galleries?

It is probably the desire to get back into society, to re-establish contact with their neighbours, to create an art for everyone and not just for the chosen few with bags of money. Artists want to recover the public that has long ago deserted the art galleries, and to break the closed circle of Artist –Dealer –Critic – Gallery –Collector.

They want to destroy the myth of the Great Artist, of the enormously costly Masterpiece, of the one and only unique divine Thing.

They have realized that at the present time subjective values are losing their importance in favour of objective values that can be understood by a greater number of people.

…The artist has to regain the modesty he had when art was just a trade, and instead of despising the very public he is trying to interest he must discover its needs and make contact with it again. This is the reason why the traditional artist is being transformed into the designer…”¹

We’re obviously in a very different place now than when Munari wrote this, but we are still traveling along the trajectory he plotted. Design continues to become a more humble trade—human-centered design minimizes our notion of the visionary designer and instead positions the designer as servant to user research and synthesis. At the time of Munari’s writing, great artists transitioned to design, and in turn, today, great designers have become systems thinkers, business people, and strategists—not just making products or services, but designing and developing the systems of creation, proliferation and collaboration, further humbling each of our roles in increasingly social systems.

This transition has been happening gradually and quietly. Here I’ll offer my personal interpretations of some artists’ work that I believe accelerates and amplifies this progression.

Sara Hendren’s accessible icon project began with her redesign of the old handicapped icon to better represent disability, but quickly turned into a guerilla street art project with people altering the icon to their preferences and painting it over the old and misrepresentative logos.

Today the logo is the official disability icon of Connecticut and New York. While she has an arts background and works in and teaches design, her projects are most powerful when they grow beyond icon or object to instead define a social movement.

Another strong example is Eric Van Hove, whose V12 Laraki begins to obscure his role as Artist, and instead positions him as coordinator of a number of Moroccan craftsmen, each creating specific parts of a Mercedes V12 engine using local materials and methods. More recently, his Mahjouba Initiative aims to translate that same process from an arts context to develop a functional, mass marketable, and locally-made electric motorcycle.

Moving forward, artists will look increasingly like Sara and Eric—not making individual things, or even product lines, but systems of creation and proliferation. As our world becomes more integrated and social, so do those systems. It is artists who, as an extension of Munari’s story, are adapting their work to humble themselves as individuals to speak to more people, to include more people, and to be honest about the fact of our interdependence and the strength therein.

Donella Meadows wrote that “words and sentences must, by necessity, come only one at a time in linear, logical order. Systems happen all at once.” Artists are adept at capturing systems that evade words, using other, higher fidelity media. But what can be captured by a painting, or a sculpture, or even a time-based work pales in comparison to the higher-dimensional complexity of an economy or ecosystem. Rather than reducing the dimensionality of subject matter for capture in an artistic work, it seems a much more interesting challenge to make those intensely complex systems the medium of new work.

Jack Burnham (Yale BFA ’59, MFA ’61) pioneered this idea with his landmark “System Esthetics,” identifying an emerging polarity between traditional fine arts (like painting and sculpture) and “unobjects” (like mixed media, environmental pieces, or “happenings”). That said, those early conceptions of systems already feel narrow. Today, we need a more expansive definition or a new vocabulary altogether.

Keller Easterling also pauses at the use of the word “system”—to her it connotes closedness and uniformity of information type. She instead talks about “overlapping networks” of various information types to better speak to the messiness, diversity, and broader interrelatedness of the kinds of stuff we’re interested in. It would make sense that architecture would be a natural place for this conversation, as the primary discipline focused on design of space and structure. Keller describes the work of these kinds of “medium designers” as necessary not only in themselves, but also because more traditional notions of architecture cannot exist without them.

I would build on that by saying that medium design doesn’t just make traditional notions of architecture or art feasible, but that good medium design makes possible work of new forms, new honesty, and new alignment, of which we’ve long been in desperate need. Many artists have struggled to make work about a certain issue, only to have their position subverted by the way their work exists in these larger systems. Basquiat is perhaps the most famous example of an anti-capitalist artist whose works are now some of the most expensive and lucrative investments that art dealers can make.

Land artists like Robert Smithson had one solution: They worked to subvert capitalist art markets by making work that was impossible to collect or sell. Still, it’s not difficult to imagine ways for capitalist structures to absorb land art, and in fact, Smithson made it easy by also creating work for traditional gallery settings.

Theaster Gates and his contemporaries represent the evolution of land art along a similar path. Not only in that their medium is in physical land and community, but also in the way they drive new alignment between the medium of work and the work itself. Community and urban development is not only prerequisite to having a place to put buildings, but good community and urban development can create alignment between the values of an architect, participants in their work, and the systems/media in which their work is embedded.

Don’t mistake these examples as final solutions, though. This issue of Paprika!, in its very examination of the intersections of business and design, reminds us that these are still mostly distinct areas of practice. I generally believe ideologies that are talked about the most are the least practiced—if we practiced/realized our ideology fully, we wouldn’t need to talk about it. Our work isn’t done until there isn’t more conversation to be had, and while it has deep roots, this conversation is really only just beginning.

1 Munari, Bruno. Design as Art. Translated by Patrick Creagh. London: Pelican Books, 1971. (Original work published 1966).