April 13, 2006

The Privileging of Use



" . . . conceptualism's redefinition of the territory of the arts threatens not simply architecture's autonomy as it is often defined through the emphasis on objecthood and functionality, but, further still, the logical implication of this boundary shift potentially challenges the 20th Century's priority on function upon which that boundary is often defined. While this situation can be and often is understood as a disciplinary territorial battle, that debate serves largely to mask the premises upon which those territorial lines are drawn. Whereas the question can be what distinguishes the functional from the non-functional arts, or even whether such a distinction can be drawn, the more interesting concern lies around the mechanisms whereby utility is set up - and repressed - as the criterion of evaluation, the content that remains unrecognized and unquestioned."

Nana Last, Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices

The point that Nana Last raises in the midst of her brilliant essay is the realization that this “territorial battle” between architecture and art is founded on a “given” articulation of functionary privilege. With its “form follows function” mantra, architecture mocks art as “useless” enterprise, tethered to the contemplative and leisurely nature of enjoyment, something hanging in or in front of our homes and buildings. Art, with its own “exceptional” telos of both therapeutic and “social use,” chides architecture as mere necessity grounded in utility, not intellectually engaged, somewhere to hang our paintings or something to decorate.

In the world of contemporary “fine” art it is a foregone assumption that the objects that artists make, whether painting, sculpture or installation, have no “real” function or utility other than their existence as objects made “for the good of themselves as objects of contemplation.” This last phrase comes directly from the Modernist categorization of contemporary works of art which differentiates between utilitarian objects, including those that are ornamented, and objects that seemingly have no “use” other than being contemplated. One could trace this “modern” definition back through Kant (18th Century) and his art theories of “free play” and the engagement of one’s “imagination” and “understanding” with a contemplated object, and further still to the Aristotelian notion of telos and the original distinction of “purpose” as both epistemological foundation and artistic “intention.”

Conceptual art, in addition to placing less emphasis on “form” or the object, sought to regain the idea of “use” within the societal context of human engagement. Conceptualism shifted the focus from the medium used to the concept itself and redefined the relationship of form and content. Conceptual art might be said then to preach a “form follows concept” creed, enabling artists to attempt a “functional” position within society. Conceptualists critiqued the institutions that established the “context” for art and clarified the position of language and photography in the “construction of meaning.” In distilling the “act” as the primary focus of the art making equation, they were able to introduce a discourse about “documentation,” temporality, and memory, encouraging inquiry into the perception of the art “experience.”

All of these innovations do not exclude conceptualism from a thorough and rigorous critique, especially in light of the confusion surrounding post-conceptual practice. One avenue for this investigation, and today’s topic for discussion, is the privileging of use which establishes a criterion for a definition of both art and architecture. As Last writes near the conclusion of her essay:

”This pervasive privileging of function operates by instituting a criterion for judgment – utility – that seems unquestionable. This framework leaves the object, concept, discourse, etc. defined around the construct of use, as though it provided the one criterion in need of fulfillment. Use thus offers itself as an uncontested rationality definitive of the object in question.”

17 comments:

Chris Rywalt said...

MCB writes:
With its “form follows function” mantra, architecture mocks art as “useless” enterprise....

Let me admit up front that I've never, to my knowledge, met an architect. But I've read a fair bit, especially on Buckminster Fuller, who is considered by some to be an architect, although I don't think he'd agree.

That said, it seems to me to be a total mischaracterization of architects to say that they believe "form follows function." In fact, I've only encountered this idea espoused by engineers, not architects. Architects don't take a lot of engineering classes; in fact, the two groups are often at odds, with the engineers deploring the architect's lack of rigorous training and the architect arguing for "beauty" over "utility." I've often heard the argument stated thusly: Architects say they should design buildings because buildings designed by engineers are ugly. Engineers say they should design buildings because buildings designed by architects fall down. Who gets to design how much of any given, specific structure is hotly debated; in legal terms, commercial buildings are given over mostly to engineers, while residential structures are by and large given over to architects.

I can even recall a specific example where the architect drew some lines on a piece of paper; the engineer worked out how those lines should properly be translated into a load-bearing structure; the on-site construction workers found the implementation too difficult and substituted an easier method; and during the opening celebration, the structure collapsed under the weight of the partygoers killing about 400 people. All because, ultimately, the architect never considered the physical embodiment of his abstract doodle.

In short: Architects are the people who put curlicues and gewgaws on the work of engineers.

Granted that some more modern schools of architecture have elements of this engineer's mentality. But they do so for reasons which are basically artistic, not technological. Engineers sneer at them just as haughtily.

Can you tell I went to engineering school?

Richard A. Meade said...

Chris, I think you need to look at the work of Frank Gehry. I'm not sure he fits in to any pigeon hole very well. That being, "form follows function" or "doodles" on paper. Although a lot of his work starts out as doodles and then are worked out on the same CAD programs used to build fighter jets. The Los Angeles Disney Concert Hall was designed by him. I have several photos I've shot of the building, but I'm not sure if MCB could upload one.

Google Frank Gehry to see examples of his work.

lou gagnon said...

Mr. Rywalt, You nailed why I no longer practice architecture but not with your points. Most people in this country believe, like you do, that all architects do is design “curlicues and gewgaws.”

You are generally correct that most architects do not do the load calculations for the structural, electrical or mechanical systems when designing a building. They are, however, required to take classes in all these engineering disciplines to get a professional degree at an accredited university. They must also pass state administered exams in these disciplines to become registered architects. Good architects have a strong understanding of the physics involved and if pushed could pull out the books of formulas and their calculator and run the numbers. The problem is scope not ability. Sort of like why you don’t want your orthopedist operating on your brain, heart or digestive system.

Fortunately, for the general public, designing a building is not limited to the structural, electrical and mechanical systems. Fire and life safety, egress (emergency exiting), accessibility, environmental issues, acoustics, planning and zoning issues in addition to the program and space planning (what the client is trying to build in the first place) are some of the responsibilities architects assume. Architects are responsible for orchestrating the design and permitting processes and administering the construction process. Often the engineers are consultants to the architects (meaning the architect administers their progress and payment for the client/developer).

For the record:
“Architect” and “Architecture” are legal terms regulated in the US by the A.I.A. and NCARB at the state and national levels.
The products of the service “Architecture” are plans and specifications. Both are legal contracts that document the owner’s interest.
The Architect represents the owner’s interests in the execution of the contract.
Architects are “liable” for the welfare and safety of the general public and in most states are required to carry liability insurance along with “Errors and Omissions” insurance.

Over the past several decades the scope of responsibility architects are required by the government to assume has risen exponentially while their fees as a percentage of construction cost have dropped. It is a barely functional business model.

Both Artists and Architects use materials to manipulated forms to convey a vision in two, three and four (time) dimensions. After that it is like comparing lawyers to philosophers.

Mr. Meade, you chose a great example. The Disney Concert Hall is one of the first major construction projects that issued the 3D cad model as a bid document. The contractors were required to use the model to calculate their materials quantities and verify dimensions. Also, the construction process and schedule was rehearsed digitally using the 3D model to work out staging and construction issues in advance.

Mr. Boyd, One day I realized that even if I could surmount all the current obstacles to orchestrating a brilliant building design, someone was going to hang some drapes, a painting (probably a reproduction) and throw a ficus in the corner to improve the place. That day I went back to painting pictures and life has been better. Art can be free of rationale.

I suspect the gravity toward utility is rooted in a society at once inundated with visual stimulus and yet illiterate or atrophied to comprehend it.

It is also worth noting that “form follows function” is a late 19th century concept. Before Louis Sullivan the function of a building was defined by it’s program (or allocation of spaces) more than its material realization. Mr. Sullivan, by the way, was one of the great masters of “curlicues and gewgaws.”

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Welcome, Lou! With respect, to truly trace the sourcing or lineage of the “form follows function” concept, we have to go further than the 19th Century. Recta ratio factibilium was one of Aristotle’s definitions for art - “the right making of the thing to be made” - which expresses the general intention that the correctness of use (function) should dictate the making of all objects, bowls and buildings alike. This "law" was thoroughly drummed into our Western philosophic consciousness through Thomas Aquinas’ lionization of “The Philosopher” in the Summa Theologica and wormed its way down to the modern eras, although it was severely "mortgaged" during the Industrial Revolution.

My staging of Artist vs. Architect as "virtual skit" was to present these “positions” for my argument which, as you correctly point out, is concerned with the overarching rationale of “utility” being the decisive criterion for distinguishing “value” in these fields. The fact that architects are more stringently monitored and regulated than artists does not grant architecture more “validation” as an occupation, with which I believe you clearly agree. Now that you have joined the ranks of artists, I would like to learn more about your thoughts on the current fragility of contemporary art’s appreciation as a “useful” art, and what "function" your paintings provide.

Also, if Frank Gehry and his CAD team had actually “work[ed] out staging and construction issues in advance” on the Disney Concert Hall, they ought to have determined that those highly reflective exterior panels were going to generate excessive heat and sun blindness throughout the immediate downtown L.A. area.

Chris Rywalt said...

Lou: I was using hyperbole to make something of a point, yes. I know architects do more useful work than just doodle things out. I was taking the side -- the far side -- of the engineer in the engineer-versus-architect debate.

I didn't realize that architects were being so badly squeezed by the government, though. Like doctors, I guess: These once-proud professions are being beaten down by a system which is going to miss them very badly when they're gone.

lou gagnon said...

Mr. Boyd, Thank you for welcoming me.

After the 2000 presidential election, Apple Computer took out a full page add that simply showed the Florida “Butterfly Ballot.” Under the image read the words “Never underestimate the value of good design.” Or, never underestimate the cost of poor communication.

It is my experience that the “fragility of appreciation” that contemporary artists and architects perceive is rooted in a society that is either visually illiterate or atrophied. How many people would the libraries and bookstores attract if most of society were verbally illiterate? This is an artist and architect problem not a government problem. My observations from the profession of architecture (and I suspect contemporary high art is much the same) is that it has an overly centralized focus. Too much preaching to the choir, too little taking it to the streets. Too few are offered too little visual education too late. I have found that higher expectations in the fundamental development of understanding optical experiences leads to higher expectations and appreciation of art and design. Not a novel finding just a rarely exercised one. The visually literate are free to develop the aesthetic autonomy required to define value, function and utility for themselves. Facilitating visual literacy is one function I choose to pursue as an artist.

The primary function my paintings provide (me) comes in the act of painting. I paint to occupy the space created at the confluence of meditation and intellectual exploration (free of verbal language). Once made the paintings are free to fly or fall on their own. I believe the final act of creativity is letting go.

Regarding the Disney Concert Hall: The staging and scheduling rehearsals were practiced to coordinate the construction of the building not test whether the building would be a good neighbor. A very large percentage of the waste that goes into landfills comes from construction sites and the money to be saved in the building process is in wasting less material and time. I know firsdt hand the siding, coupled with the forms, create unexpected environments (especially from the concave surfaces). Personally, I do not care for the building. Like much of his work it fails to delivery at the human scale.

Regarding “form follows function”: Yes, the concept has been around a while. Perhaps it is better said that the concept was more fully realized after Mr. Sullivan with the Modern Movement. Only then was the narrative and or ornamental veneer removed to allow the functional (building) forms to be expressed. Some may argue that the narrative and ornamental elements served a function. Others may argue that the veneer did not go away it just changed form. And still others may argue that shift away from ornament served the shifting role of building from civic to corporate priorities.

I am sorry for the long posts, these are tough issues for me to reduce to sound bites. Thank you for hosting this dialogue.

richard a. meade said...

Nice to see another view point being articulate on this blog. Welcome Lou, I look forward to more of your commentary here.

I just sent MCB two jpegs of images of the Disney Concert hall for him to choose from. They were shot when the building was nearing completion. Baring size constraints of the jpegs, MCB assured me that he indeed would like to post one of my images of the Disney Concert hall. If I have to resize the image, it may not be posted until I get the resized jpeg back to MCB. I will do my best to do this in a timely manner.

I think it should be stated that the problem with the highly reflective skin of the Disney Center was only on the West side of the building. On that side of the building there was a portion of the building's skin that was almost mirror like. As the sun arced over the building the reflective skin on that part of the building became a parabolic mirror and caused the temperature inside apartments across the street from the center to rise significantly. Litigation ensued from the apartment owners concerning this "unknown" possibility of the surface causing the temperature to rise in those apartments. There was a temporary fix to the problem by applying a scrim to the outside surface of the skin of the building which was causing the problem. After seeing that this "toning down" of the reflective surface worked in mitigating the problem for the neighbors, the scrim was removed and the surface was permanently toned down. This isn't the only building with highly reflective surfaces. Any big city in the world has large buildings with mirror like windows reflecting the sun. At certain times of the day these buildings can be blinding to pedestrians, drivers and pilots. Since cooling these large buildings is a major issue these reflective surfaces are essential in that endeavor.

What interests me about the approach of Gehry to his work is that he thinks "outside the box". Both literally and figuratively. In this aspect Gehry's way of working is rather conceptual in its approach. What I mean by this, is that the buildings outer appearance is as important as its function in regards to why it is being built. Gehry seems to have found his niche. His work is mostly for cultural clients and I'm not sure corporate clients would be interested in his "thinking outside the box" in regards to the corporate client’s view of "form following function". Corporate clients are concerned with square footage ratios in their daily quest of doing business. They aren't as much interested in the "aesthetics" of the building as they are that every square foot be, in their corporate mind, "paying for its self". We can only wait and see if Gehry morphs in to the "corporate client" realm. At present it seems his main benefactors are, as mentioned above, cultural clients.

lou gagnon’s comment; “It is my experience that the “fragility of appreciation” that contemporary artists and architects perceive is rooted in a society that is either visually illiterate or atrophied. How many people would the libraries and bookstores attract if most of society were verbally illiterate? This is an artist and architect problem not a government problem. My observations from the profession of architecture (and I suspect contemporary high art is much the same) is that it has an overly centralized focus. Too much preaching to the choir, too little taking it to the streets. Too few are offered too little visual education too late. I have found that higher expectations in the fundamental development of understanding optical experiences leads to higher expectations and appreciation of art and design. Not a novel finding just a rarely exercised one. The visually literate are free to develop the aesthetic autonomy required to define value, function and utility for themselves. Facilitating visual literacy is one function I choose to pursue as an artist.” This well thought out comment, deserves further exploration under a new topic on this blog.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Lou Gagnon said: The primary function my paintings provide (me) comes in the act of painting. I paint to occupy the space created at the confluence of meditation and intellectual exploration (free of verbal language). To continue our ontological implication of art as “useful,” if we propose that “the act of painting” provides a use, this would be as the full engagement of Aristotle’s “therapeutic” value of art, which does provide a subjective function for the practitioner. The establishment of an art that provides a “usefulness” for others is imperative and I dare say this is perhaps an ironic quest of conceptual art, to return art to an objective value outside of the personal (art as therapy) or the superficial ("retinal" pleasure).

Moreover, I disagree that there is a "space" that is "free of verbal language." I believe that all art is linguistic, and to paraphrase Mr. Derrida, there is nothing outside of language that can be transmitted or made present to a viewer. The way we are thinking now and the words we are writing about this topic are within this system of representation called language. No word, or painting, acquires "meaning" by being an unmediated expression of something non-linguistic.

And I should like to pursue, as Mr. Meade has suggested, Mr. Gagnon’s idea that “The visually literate are free to develop the aesthetic autonomy required to define value, function and utility for themselves.” This is perhaps a matter of social class and economics to be more fully developed next week in a second installment of these discussions.

lou gagnon said...

Mr. Boyd, You wrote- "The establishment of an art that provides a “usefulness” for others is imperative…" No quantity or quality of writing will help or make the illiterate read and thereby find their own use for literature. Facilitate and expect aesthetic autonomy and usefulness will take care of itself.

"I believe that all art is linguistic, and to paraphrase Mr. Derrida, there is nothing outside of language that can be transmitted or made present to a viewer. The way we are thinking now and the words we are writing about this topic are within this system of representation called language." Writing about and talking about art does not make art. It makes dialogue, criticism, theory and history. Art exists before the verbal language it evokes or provokes. Art forces us to invent new words to attempt to fill the gaps between our verbal language and physical experience. The word “apple” did not precede the experience “apple.” Where one cannot speak, one must remain silent, to perhaps misuse Wittgenstein. It is in this silent space that I experience art/creation.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Oh, to return to those infant perceptions, pure and prior to the socialization of “language,” as many a surrealist and abstract expressionist has attempted! These represent the only “silent space(s)” where “art exists before the verbal language it evokes or provokes,” where “experience” precedes words. “Writing about and talking about art” creates a discourse without which the conception of “art” could not “exist,” inasmuch as it occupies the focus and interest of our intellects. We are limited only by the language we use in our abilities to grasp these concepts.

Chris Rywalt said...

MCB sez:
I believe that all art is linguistic, and to paraphrase Mr. Derrida, there is nothing outside of language that can be transmitted or made present to a viewer.

I disagree strongly with this statement, and therefore I guess I agree with Lou above. What makes great art, to me -- and it's subjective, of course -- transcends language, transcends rational thought. When I stood in front of a Van Gogh for the first time, I felt something. I didn't think about something, I didn't verbalize something. I felt something. I cannot define what I felt because what I felt wasn't related to language at all.

Music, perfume, paintings -- these things all communicate without using the language center of our nervous systems. (Smells in particular bypass most of the higher brain centers and have nothing to do with any language processing.)

So I assert that all art is not linguistic. The reduction of all thought to language is, in my opinion, a false one -- and one which has not been supported by any scientific experiments to date. Derrida -- if his position really was that there is no thought without language -- took his theories too far.

richarda. meade said...

"Symbols are no more language than the object in the road that is used as a landmark for it certain purpose. True enough that object means something to me. When I see it, I know I must turn to the right; but where in this whole situation is there that living interaction in which some one speaks to some one or tells him where to go? Symbols are very definitely objects of particular sorts and they indeed exhibit stimulational functions. As substitute stimuli they elicit understanding responses among others, but in no case as symbols do they constitute any essential feature of a living linguistic event."

The rest of Jacob Robert Kantor’s . "Language as Behavior and as Symbolism." Journal of Philosophy, 26, (1929) can be read here: http://spartan.ac.brocku.ca/~lward/Kantor/Kantor_1929c.html

lou gagnon said...

"We are limited only by the language we use in our abilities to grasp these concepts." Language only limits the grasping of concepts that are language dependent. The emphasis placed on the “socialization of language” limits the development of other modes of communication.

richard a. meade said...

Language is a system of shapes that has meaning when we organize them and place them into a context. What happens to the function of these shapes when that organization is destroyed and the meaning is obscured?

Does the system of shapes we define as language, when obscured or destroyed, become stimulational "symbols" on a visual level?

Do they become more than their original intent or do they retain only the essential meaning of the linguistic event?

I would think art can be both linguistic and symbolic. As proof of this is some of the work by Duchamp, Magritte and Stuart Davis.

mr. gagnon wrote; "Where one cannot speak, one must remain silent, to perhaps misuse Wittgenstein. It is in this silent space that I experience art/creation."

I would suggest that without silent spaces language would not have meaning. Each space between each word written is in fact a silent space. For if those spaces between each written or spoken word didn't exist, language would be just nonsense. A printed poem or a sheet of music can be both visual and expressive in its language. The visual aspect of the poem or music having a different stimuli as to what is conveyed by the words or musical notes.

richard a. meade said...

"Our task of separating symbolism from language is finished. We conclude that language as living phenomena can not be regarded as other than behavior. Language consists of a series of adjustmental interactions and not a set of symbols.

This does not mean, of course, that language can not be symbolized. That it can we have already indicated. We can symbolize any kind of data. Then why not language?"

Jacob Robert Kantor. "Language as Behavior and as Symbolism." Journal of Philosophy, 26, (1929)

M. Cameron Boyd said...

With respect to all:

Chris, let me make myself clear: how you “feel” about a painting remains unimportant to me as long as you keep your thoughts, feelings, emotions to yourself. When you write or speak of your experience of “art” then you are using the system of language. Therefore, all understanding of art is linguistic.

Richard, I appreciate the addition of Kantor’s work to this discussion but he is mistaken about symbols. Looking at the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, whose language teachings were based purely on its structure, a sign derives its “meaning” from its difference from other signs: we turn left because we recognize that symbol by its difference from the right-hand turn symbol. For a humanist, Kantor is decidedly stubborn in his failure to recognize this as a “linguistic event.”

Lou, all concepts are “language dependent” if we plan to discuss them, share them or even refute them. Without the “socialization of language” we have no communication.

Derrida proposed a concept called the iterability of language; that because “any given utterance must draw on a preexisting linguistic system and thus can never be fully determined by or confined to the specific circumstances in which it is uttered, it is always vulnerable to being taken out of context, being cited rather than used, taken in jest rather than in seriousness.” I think our “side-bar” discussion of “symbols and signs” clearly proves his conception of language.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Richard Meade’s questions/statements:

Language is a system of shapes that has meaning when we organize them and place them into a context. What happens to the function of these shapes when that organization is destroyed and the meaning is obscured?
They become “meaningless,” which further supports my theory that “meaning is in the system.”

Does the system of shapes we define as language, when obscured or destroyed, become stimulational "symbols" on a visual level?
This is something I explore in my own painting, the tension between “visual” and textual language. There is a “stimulational” aspect that is determined by the memory of the text and the “play” of “meaning.”

Do they become more than their original intent or do they retain only the essential meaning of the linguistic event?
This is dependent on the recognition factor and the degree in which one “buys into” a theory of language as a “linguistic event.”

I would suggest that without silent spaces language would not have meaning. Each space between each word written is in fact a silent space. For if those spaces between each written or spoken word didn't exist, language would be just nonsense. A printed poem or a sheet of music can be both visual and expressive in its language. The visual aspect of the poem or music having a different stimuli as to what is conveyed by the words or musical notes.
If I understand you correctly, Richard, you are saying that it is the “spaces between” that creates the system by which we understand language. If this is your rather elegant way of incorporating John Cage and Nam June Paik’s ideas about “silences,” it nonetheless indicates a “system.” Apollinaire and the Symbolists poets explored this duality of expression in their poems which were almost sculpturally visual yet still literate. Language IS symbol.