Observing Alex

Casually organized thoughts

Design as social practice art

April 07, 2020

In my art history class yesterday, we talked about the break between the avant-garde and social practice art. In short, while the avant-garde had a more utopian aim, works of social practice art have more specific objectives. Another way to think about these definitions is to see social practice art as the break in the pairing of aesthetic and activism that the avant-garde ultimately failed to utilize in affecting mass societal change.

Then I came across this passage from Vilén Flusser’s book The Shape of Things:

Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and ‘hard’, the other aesthetic, evaluative and ‘soft’. This unfortunate split started to become irreversible towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the gap, the word design formed a bridge between the two.

It seems like design and social practice art have quite similar origins. However, how is it that design (for clarity, I’m primarily referring to industrial design) has maintained an appreciation for aesthetics, and arguably a soft-spot for idealism?

Perhaps we can give credit to the constraints placed on designs. In a film for his 1972 exhibition, “Qu’est ce que le design?”, Charles Eames responded to the question, “Is there a design ethic?”, by saying:

“There are always design constraints and these often imply an ethic.”

By acknowledging constraints, could social practice art transcend the realm of intentional language for extreme conditions and instead be used to encourage ethics in daily life? This transcendence could still be distinct from design, as the mediums do not need to change. Instead, social practice art could build mental constraints against unethical behavior, much like the symbolism of religious art, without merely shocking people.