N: I am currently reading about the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres who is an interesting artist given all the points you bring up about the readymade, consumerism, art, and design. In his works, Gonzalez-Torres uses consumer objects such as candies, lightbulbs or beads. I was initially going to suggest that these are readymades, yet it is important to note that when Duchamp introduced the readymade, he claimed that Richard Mutt (!) “…took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.” Then, for an object to be a readymade, it has to be detached from its function. However, in Gonzalez-Torres’s works, the function of these consumer objects is critical. A lightbulb has to be recognized as a lightbulb and used as such. Similarly, candies have to be eaten by the visitors; otherwise, the work fails to be completed (noted as such by Gonzalez-Torres). He becomes an important figure to consider precisely because the consumer objects he uses cannot be defined as readymades. He brings both the form and the function of these consumer objects into art historical settings. In his work, form and function are kept intact. Most of the time, artists either choose to make works with the object-ness of the readymade or appropriate the given function.
With this approach to consumer objects in mind, the curation and ownership of Gonzalez-Torres’s work becomes really interesting. I recently learnt that in the Certificate of Authenticity Gonzalez-Torres provided to the buyers, he allowed the owners of his artworks to use different types of candies or beads if the stated ones were not available. One article mentioned how the language he used in these certificates allowed the owners to pick their own ideal heights for the paper stacks in some of his works. This flexibility brings the possibility of these stacks to be tall enough for visitors to not be able to reach to get a sheet and thus can potentially challenge the ideals Gonzalez-Torres set for his work. Another example to this greater flexibility in the curation of his work can be seen in Untitled (Public Opinion), 1991. For this piece, the curators were able to choose different types of candies in different installations, which resulted in various receptions. For example, while the people at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World related the piece to the “...process of interpretation that scholars of ancient culture apply to artifacts whose exact histories are unknown….at St. Philip’s Church, the largely African American congregation introduced an entirely new reading of the work, linking the black rod licorice candies to the use of licorice root as a balm by American slaves, and the subsequent proliferation of racist imagery in early-twentieth-century marketing campaigns for licorice candy.” Do you think that to be able to accommodate this amount of flexibility within a single work, we need to know this candy piece is a work by Gonzalez-Torres prior to seeing it?
I cannot help but connect this letter (Figure 7) of his to here as well. It is on all of my social media platforms! It is just so beautifully said. It talks about time and has two o-r-g clocks drawn — two things, which I know you like. Welcome back to NY! We missed you.
E: I wonder if the questioning of graphic design and its relationship with art will lead us in circles. Rather it seems like a question that many have thought of before us. Perhaps it is more useful to instead focus on producing work that tries to question this? Or not even that, but you know.. because we are thinking of this, inevitably any work we produce will be tied up in these questions. And perhaps that is good enough? The reason I am interested in design, in large part, is because it gives me another outlet for researching a question. Many of the things I produce are artifacts of a larger investigation. The readymade is really interesting because it has been used by designers and artists alike.
I'm currently reading Design as Art and I think it's well worth your time. The current edition is published as a sibling to Ways of Seeing, funnily enough.
Well, there are other things about design and art that are interesting to us. For example, Kelly and I recently started stubio, which was never meant to be an economically viable venture. Rather, everything on the site is a one off, pushing against the idea that a retail enterprise has to sell multiples of an item. Additionally, the site doesn't operate like a regular store in the sense that it is super bare bones, doesn't really attempt to advertise itself, and has super random stream of conscious-y copywriting. At the end of the day, I'd still consider this to be a graphic design enterprise. And I think doing this is an extension of me thinking about design, art, and consumerism..
N: I have just read this article — and there are many similar others out there— that talks about how Duchamp stole the idea of the readymade from the 20th century Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Figure 5). This article argues that Elsa was friends with Duchamp. In referring to the Fountain, Duchamp in his letter to his sisters says “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture…” The identity of the female friend has always been a mystery, but the proofs in the article (Elsa was in Pennsylvania at the time when the Fountain was submitted to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, and the company that made these specific urinals was based in Pennsylvania are some proofs.) make a strong case that Elsa was the owner of the Fountain. In fact, she had been claiming found object as her works of art before Duchamp started experimenting with his readymades. I suggest you read the article; it is pretty fascinating and made me a little sad since you know I am a Duchamp fan (I still am). I guess it would make sense since he is a male figure and she is not…
Back to your question about what is it about art that makes us want to associate graphic design with it.. That is something I often think to myself. I can start by answering from a personal point of view: I would not want to only produce commercial works as this would not suffice my interests. What I like in art and why I would like graphic design to be more like it is the free will that comes with it. There is almost some kind of a narcissistic view of graphic design when it becomes close to art: the practice starts to be derived from individual expression; it becomes something that serves to one’s name and to one’s interests primarily. Remember when I asked you whether or not there is an existential component in typography? Then, I guess there is. We would like to create works that showcase our interests to make valuable use of our time on this earth and to feel good about ourselves in doing so. Thus, in making or wanting graphic design to be more like art, we want it to have a greater (existential) purpose. The interesting question, to me, or what I have yet do not have an answer to is this: Is there no other discipline than art where one can pursue individual interests? Is that what defines art? If so, trying to claim something similar for graphic design, a similar understanding, would not help us differentiate design. As much as we want to claim the individual will that comes with associating graphic design with art, perhaps we should omit this tendency and instead find something that is specific to graphic design. I am not sure if this is possible since there are already so many different ways people have been practicing the discipline, but I wonder if you think this is possible? Or do you think this is worthwhile pursuit? Is there an end goal, reward, in disassociating graphic design from art?