Fine art versus design explored at the MIA


In the 1950s, the pop art explosion called into question the hierarchy between design made for mass culture versus fine art. From Marcel Duchamp's readymades to Andy Warhol's soup cans, artists (and the institutions that supported them) began to blur the divide between these two expressions of creativity, proposing that work using mass media sources could belong in a gallery or a museum. Since then, the two worlds have continued to dance between each other, with expectations of quality and creativity continually rising for commercial art and design, while fine artists often draw from commercial art techniques. 

The creative overlaps of fine art and design are the subject of a panel discussion this Thursday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art's MAEP Galleries. Using the current "Flourish" exhibition as a starting point, panelists Mike Davis, founder of Burlesque of North America; Tom Garrett, professor at MCAD; Jason Strong, Space 150's creative director; and Kim Witczak, bd'm art buyer will share their perspectives based on their professional experiences. MAEP coordinator Christopher Atkins will moderate, which will be followed by a discussion with the audience.  

Atkins says that the panel will explore what fine art and design share, as well as the different contexts for design work.  

"Design is based on infinite reproducibility," he says. Whereas with fine art, there has historically been a "cult of the original." Therefore, because there is only one painting, it has been valued more than, say, a print that is just one of many copies. 

There also exists a different relationship between a designer and his or her client versus a fine artist and their client, if there is one.  

Atkins says that the panel will use the 40 pieces in the "Flourish" show as a starting point because all four artists--Jennifer Davis, Erika Olson Gross, Terrence Payne, and Joe Sinness--use elements of design in their work. Sinness incorporates magazine covers, Payne uses a lot of fabrics and graphics in his work, Gross employs textile patterning, and Davis's work has illustrative qualities.  

Tom Garrett, who teaches design at MCAD, says that the exploration of similarities between design and art was a lot more provocative when Warhol, a successful illustrator of the 1950s, proposed the idea that doing work for merchandise could be considered art.  

"But today we have so many hybrids," Garrett says. "A lot of illustrators show work in galleries. He also says that the audiences of mass-produced pieces are a lot more sophisticated nowadays.

One question he's hoping discuss at the panel is whether designers are just dealing with audience needs or whether they have a personal voice, and it what means to be authentic.  

"Obviously, some clients aren't asking for work that is 'deep,'" he says, "but some are." 

And how pure is fine art, really? For hundreds of years, the "client" was the church, or some rich patron. Nowadays, fine artists often create work for commissions from personal buyers or a museum, or for some government-funded public arts project. Sure, there are artists that have the luxury of creating in a vacuum, making whatever their heart desires, but don't many cater toward what is valued by the powers that can pay for it?  

Is designing for an advertising firm really selling out? Garrett argues that it doesn't have to be if a designer is invested in the work and puts their own voice into it.  

At MCAD, there used to be divisions between the fine art and design departments, but Garrett says nowadays those divisions don't exist like they used to. Painters and furniture makers sit in on an illustration class and vice versa.  

"We teach our students, 'What is your voice?'" he says, "How strong is your investigation? How authentic is it? Who is your audience?"

But is design work for popular culture really art? "The best work really does pass the test," Garrett says. "Some doesn't."  

The 'Fine Art & Design Panel Discussion' takes place this Thursday, December 16, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at MAEP Galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The discussion is  free and open to the public.