Impurity and the Logic of Specialisation

Katherine Moline

Dialogues between art and design are sometimes criticised for contaminating the purity and autonomy of art. Increasingly, however, contemporary artists have moved into interdisciplinary practices that engage design. Some debates that negotiate the crossovers between specialisations privilege artists who are seen to operate independently of context. Others look to the historical interchanges between art and design and see little sense in idealising artists in this way. From this perspective, connections between the fields are valued for the insights they yield for critical interpretations of the social engagement of art in everyday life. The confusion between contemporary art and design and the fracturing of these specialisations, evoke questions about both the differences and affinities between commercial art and conceptual design. This essay discusses these themes and a selection of works by Australian artists that refute the autonomy of art and specialisation and reconnect art and design in new ways.

Emily Floyd
Linux for Beginners 2012
Lithograph on paper, 115 x 84.5 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 2012

Alternately, German art historian Helmut Draxler has argued that design is pertinent to contemporary art practice in fact because it questions the ethos of art as autonomous, as functioning independently from society, untouched by everyday life. Draxler adopts a definition of design as a practice engaged with social reform, rather than being entirely caught up in commercial imperatives. He points to American artists such as Judith Barry who devised exhibition designs to foreground social concerns inherent in the interchange and reception of popular media and cultural institutions, and Andrea Fraser who questions service relationships in museum contexts as institutional critique.

" is pertinent to contemporary art practice in fact because it questions the ethos of art."

There was an abundance of artworks that challenged the so-called autonomy of art in the 1980s with a critique of consumerism such as the ’commodity art’ by American Allan McCollum—who scrutinised modes of production and consumption with his generic multiple sculptures designed to flood the art market with exact replicas in a market tailored to ‘unique’ works—or the ’Neo-geo’ paintings of Peter Halley that represented abstract painting as a space of confinement and subdivision, “a site of alienation and banality” rather than a utopia (Halley). Draxler also critiques Foster’s proposal as ‘gnostic’, and argues:

To put it bluntly, a reference to design might be seen today as a constitutive factor for artistic practice. Whereas since the 1960s artists have continuously sought to explore the space between art and design, theory has remained caught up in the old modernist oppositions that come with a purely negative concept of design.


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