Last week, visitors to the Rice University Art Gallery got to take off their shoes and indulge in the pleasure of Pleasurscape, designer Karim Rashid’s groovy new installation. Sitting in Pleasurscape feels like having a drink at the latest Ian Schrager hotel: it’s see-and-be-seen amongst cutting-edge design. The installation sure looked cool: a shiny, lumpy, white plastic landscape with people lying around on it.
And it was…sort of pleasurable, in a THX-1138 kind of way.
Rashid is a brilliant designer, whose products I’ve given as wedding presents for years without realizing they were his. But even as I lay on one of the installation’s hard ergonomic lumps, admiring how attractively everyone’s skin reflected the glowing orange walls, I felt disappointed. I kept noting the imperfections of the work’s industrial manufacture: the units didn’t fit together all that well, some of them were warped, and you could see the imprint of bubble wrap on the surface. As is so often the reality behind a slickly advertised product, Pleasurscape the installation just wasn’t that well-made. And even beyond the issue of quality, I felt nagging at me the boring old question: was this art?
Curator Jennifer King, a fellow Rice alumna, thinks it is. The exhibition has its academic roots in King’s graduate work at Williams College, where she is combining her interests in installation and decorative arts for her thesis: “In the past, installation was ephemeral, it was about institutional critique, so it really had to do with an event or a happening or performance art. And now the dominant mode of installation art is something more akin to interior design.”
Indeed, much was said last week about “blurred lines” between art and design. For me, Elle Decoration is a pleasure and Art Forum is a chore, but I nonetheless felt troubled seeing what was essentially mass-producable furniture (albeit cool furniture designed specifically for the space), in an art gallery. Was I just not having enough fun? And should the Rice Art Gallery not show the work of an industrial designer?
For most people the question was irrelevant (or “quaint,” to use Rice art history lecturer Randy Van Schepen’s word). Cindy Strauss, the Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts at the MFAH, doesn’t see a distinction today between design and art: “You see artists incorporating…decorative art in their work, and then you see designers whom you would think would only do chairs or wastepaper baskets, going into a conceptual installation vein.” True. You also see Armani at the Guggenheim, but that doesn’t make it art (or even — Robert Wilson‘s lighting aside — that good of a show).
So I asked Karim Rashid himself whether design really is the art of today, as he claimed in his gallery talk. The artist/designer replied enthusiastically: “The real world right now has gone way beyond art. And the real artistic things are music videos and commercials and industrial design and architecture. Art can’t compete anymore. There’s a saying, “an artist can’t compete with a man on the moon in your living room.” And there’s a truth to it. Most artists can’t get a hold of the greatest, the newest [technology]. You know who can? Disney World, MGM. [Studios] have the money and the talent and the numbers of people… you have 60 or 70 people working on the visual effects for a movie, they’re bound to do better than if I go see a Dan Graham video installation.
“Today I think the real artists are out there doing commercials. they’re not showing at galleries. Because the stuff you see in 90% of the galleries is just atrocious, and has so little to do with this day and age in which we live, which is phenomenally exciting, it’s like, really powerful. It’s so energetic. It’s digital. We are digital. And that’s beautiful.”
Well, ok, there certainly is a lot of crap in art galleries. And design has been very exciting in the past 10 years, particularly in the proliferation of great design at reasonable prices. Moreover, as Rashid says, the lure of advertising dollars means that some amazing talent goes into commercials (Budweiser‘s white version of the “Whazzup” commercial being a Superbowl standout this year). But that’s just not art, no matter how boring or quaint or irrelevant the question may seem. A nice chair or a funny beer commercial doesn’t really move me or change the way I think about the world, even if it does hold my attention longer than 60 seconds. Not everything made by artists is any good, but by the same token, not everything that’s any good is art. Sometimes a chair — no matter how well-designed — is just a chair.