Sitting as I was in customary rush-hour traffic, I tuned in to the BBC classic Front Row and my interest was immediately piqued by an interview with one of the UK’s most esteemed creative influencers in the form of London’s Design Museum Director, Deyan Sudjic. Writer, editor, educationalist and curator, Sudjic was in full flow, waxing lyrical on the value of the handmade in the age of the 3D print. He also highlighted the quality of ‘uniqueness’ as embodied in the three dozen or so artefacts selected for the Design Museum’s hosting of the Loewe Craft Prize exhibition, with contributors drawn from a truly international field. My hackles first began to rise when this national figure glibly commented “…Hiding what the material is (maybe) part of the magic of craft…” humph, yeah, maybe Deyan. My inner dialogue simmered gently: Whatever happened to craft/design/art concepts and values such as integrity, structure as surface and truth to material I wondered? The notion of (hand) craft as an illusionistic form as thus depicted is surely the exception rather than the rule?
Sudjic’s next utterances though were rather less guarded, offering listeners an insight into what might be seen as a litmus of design/craft from an institutional(ized) perspective, and perhaps even more tellingly, a designers view on the state (and definition) of (the) art. Curiously, the BBC interviewer asked Sudjic why the “bizarre” collection of works in the exhibition display was not art. I noted here, with some amusement, that from a journalistic perspective, the quality of bizarre-ness appeared to be a defining characteristic of, or a monopoly for (contemporary) art.
Sudjic’s response was philosophical and semiotic dynamite:
“Why is this not art? There are not…hard and fast lines between various forms of creativity …there is a hierarchy, and traditionally art has been at the top of that hierarchy because it is absolutely useless and somehow useful things carry that burden of utility…”.
I kind of understood his line of reasoning, but even so, for me, the feline was well and truly out of the proverbial soft container; simples: art is defined by its uselessness.
This is not as daft or simplistic as it seems though, and let’s explore why: Taken logically, and to address the premise of Sudjic’s definition, this use of the word ‘absolutely’ in this context is of paramount importance. If ‘absolute’ uselessness is the defining characteristic (quality) that cleaves art from craft then we are in a simple binary bind; we would of course have to disregard any other abstract or cultural applications of art from the past that served (or carried a burden of) religious, educational or political purpose. A criteria that would seriously thin out art museums I suspect.
On the other hand, even if we take ‘uselessness’ as a more usable variable (rather than an absolute), that might operate on a sliding scale from the most useful to the least, then the hierarchy (with art at the top - remember), takes us towards a (Sudjic’s) notion of meaning adulterated by utility at one end and some kind of artistic ‘purity’ of meaning (sans function) at the other. Sudjic’s assertion at its logical and inescapable conclusion is that the most useless must be the most meaningful, and the most meaningful, the most useless. Similarly, meaninglessness would be embodied by maximum usefulness. If this seems like a distorted application of Sir Francis Bacon’s method of inductive reasoning then it is (the other Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)), but bear in mind just who is voicing this definition and the national role of this institution and the subjects represented.
If my analysis seems unfair and based on a throwaway comment then forgive me, but we live in an age of draconian repercussions for the indiscretions and social media gaffs made by celebs. pop-stars and nationally respected figures alike. The subtleties and transience of creative subject commentaries on the medium of radio are still soundbites as far as I’m concerned and are therefore fair game.
I dimly recall that in Ian Fleming’s seminal spy novel Casino Royale, his main character James Bond wins at a game of Baccarat, by detecting the giveaway mannerism of his opponent when bluffing, known in gambling circles as a ‘tell’. If we take Sudjic’s comments as Director of a national design body in the same way, I would argue that we certainly learn something of the thinking behind curatorial policy and lurking subject perceptions if nothing else.