Friday, November 03, 2006

An aesthetic reflection prompted by an interactive design by Jonathan Yuen

Jonathan Yuen has created a brilliant online piece. My first reaction is just to appreciate the simplicity and intensity of the images, and to be impressed by their relationships... they have texture and depth, but they're sharp and recognizable. There's a line that connects them, starting as the contour of the bank in the first images and then becoming the silhouette of the ground in the other ones. Each one is accompanied by a few characters, and when they're rolled over, they reveal a statement from the artist. The visuals harness a few essential design skills, including balance, continuity, recognizability, chromatic consistency, and control of the focal point.

When I see a piece of work like this, I start to wonder where the basic substance comes from. Jonathan Yuen describes himself as a "multi-disciplinary designer," and he uses a lot of fiercely controlled techniques... aside from the label itself, this is what could mark this piece as a work of design. Fine art tends to evoke terms like "expression," and in this piece, this is tempered by a suggestion of "communication"... the recognizable figures, the calculated movement and color scheme (red for rollover), and the non-English characters as an enigma for the English-speaking viewer are all devices perfected in the world of marketing and corporate identity.

There's the other side, though. This is a profoundly autonomous piece of work, and the expression, or externalization, of the SELF is a classic fine art endeavor. A close friend once said the following with regard to any act of creation: the product (or productive activity) is art to the degree that it is totally autonomous, and it's design to the degree that it's done for an audience. This is a good starting point for these terms, but this answer is only necessary because we can't seem to get away from the question of art versus design.

Or maybe it's just that I can't get away from it. In any case, whenever I try to bring up the question of "design versus art" (and it's a played-out question, I must admit), I feel like I'm beating a dead horse's decomposing corpse. So why do I feel like it's still unresolved? Maybe it's my innate, futile need for strictly-defined semantic distinctions. Maybe it's self-serving... maybe I'm trying to see "design" as the alien element, so that I can incorporate it into my "art" and see myself as an innovator.

There are a lot of issues here, though. For instance, there's the "self/other" split. Is each individual his own observer, the little man in the back of the brain looking out for its own soul and identity? If so, then all productive activity in the world is essentially art, because in the end, even if it's through other people, each person is only trying to impress herself. The alternative is that we can only see ourselves reflected in others' perceptions of us (a classic psychoanalytical and feminist idea), so we're always creating things for an audience, even if we delude ourselves into thinking we're just doing it from deep in our own souls. If this is true, then according to the above definition, all productive activity is design, even if we try to claim it as pure and independent.

There's one more thing I want to throw out: maybe the competition paradigm in Western society has made it impossible to resolve the art vs. design dichotomy that seems to affect us creative types. We can focus on the individual's agency (self, "art") or we can focus on our relationship to the people around us (the market, the audience), but we think in capitalist terms, like "fair competition," "economic survival of the fittest," and "productivity as value." This puts a wall between the individual and the outside world that the individual agent simply can't break through. Capitalism has precluded us from seeing "for ourselves" and "for our audience" as the same thing.

If anybody seems close, though, it's Jonathan Yuen. His piece is straightforward, expressive, and communicative. It combines palatability, the strength of tradional design, with richness, one of the things that makes art so important to so many people. It's an aesthetically-crafted package of self-expression, a very personal space for the author, fashioned in a way that welcomes me into it. I like this kind of art.

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