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Art.  Art today is very public, and therefore anyone can be a critic.  You don't have to be trained in the arts or have any appreciation (understanding) of art at all.  You don't have to know what the artist is hoping to communicate or even try to figure it out.  You can just say, "I don't like it."  And, that's ok as far as it goes.  Art is often meant to be subjective and appeal to fairly narrow styles.  The problem comes when one takes his own subjective tastes and makes that the objective criterion by which all art is judged.  More times than not the singular factor chosen is representation.  "If it looks like the thing it represents then it's good art."  Or the converse, as I once heard a man say, "If a child looks at it and says, 'What is it?' it's obviously not any good."  The problem here is that a lot of great art communicates things that have no physical, visual form.  Does this make the art bad?  I hope not.  As I hope to demonstrate, that's a lot of what a graphic designer does!

A Bad Barometer

Whether or not a work of art represents a physical, visible thing is not a good indicator of how good the art is or how well it communicates.  Consider the following example with two different endings.


Imagine if I set up an art gallery: the Galerie de Beauté (The Gallery of Beauty).  Imagine in it I was able to display history's most beautiful paintings, sculptures and photographs of the world's most beautiful women.  Imagine that in the gallery contained the Aphrodite of Milos by Alexandros of Antioch, the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli and Yousuf Karsh's photo of Audrey Hepburn displayed in a corridor.  The masterpiece, though, is given its own room.  The frame on it is so large that you can see it coming around the corner.  The anticipation rises as you prepare yourself to see the most beautiful depiction of the most beautiful person in all of history.  But, as you turn, you see yourself for in the frame is a mirror.

This is non-representative art.  It does not show off the skill of the artist, but in a meaningful way it tries to communicate that true beauty is found in you.


Imagine the same scenario, with the same famous works of art and the same enormous frame.  The anticipation rises as you prepare yourself to see the most beautiful depiction of the most beautiful person in all of history.  But, as you turn, you see yourself for in the frame is a street-carnival style caricature of you stepping out of a limousine on to the outlined red carpet.

This is representative, but is it even art?  It requires the creator to have more skill, it visibly depicts your physical form, but does this better communicate that you are beautiful?  Odds are that it can only be understood as some sort of irony.  This is an extreme, I know, but the simple fact is that the presence of representation does not mean good art.

A Taste for Things

I don't like onions.  I don't think they are bad for you, and I don't hate the people who grow them.  I just don't like the taste of them.  I would love to go to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris and eat some of the finest food the world has to offer, but if it has onions in it, I'm not going to like it.  This does not mean that it is bad food.  It certainly doesn't mean it's not food.  It simply means that I don't have a taste for it.

The same is true with non-representative, abstract, expressionist, (etc.) art.  Just because you don't like it, doesn't mean it's not done well.  It simply means that you don't have a taste for it.

An Absolute Necessity

Non-representative art is absolutely necessary in much of our art as well as in much of our communication.  It is often the element that makes representative art so wonderful.  Consider a painted portrait of a beautiful woman.  Assume that the artist is quite skillful and can depict her in a very realistic way.  How does she look?  What is she wearing?  What is she doing?  What's in the background?  Is she alone?  All of these elements go into communicating something about this woman beyond her physical appearance.  A painting of a woman standing with her arms folded says something different than a painting of a woman reclining on a couch.  Something different is communicated if she is wearing a ball gown rather than lingerie, cooking rather than sneezing, at home rather than at the beach, with her children rather than with a sports car.  All of these visible objects actually represent invisible concepts.

This is extremely true and vitally important in design.  When thinking through a design, one must consider how to communicate a message that has no physical form.  Sometimes that is done through layout, typography, color schemes and even functionality.  Sometimes that is even done through physical representation, even through profile pictures.  I am adding profile pictures for a company's biographies today.  Do you think the same (invisible) message will be communicated so long as the personnel is (visibly) represented?  No!  A professional photograph with the proper angle, lighting and background communicate (invisible) confidence and competence that a snapshot of someone picking his nose simply cannot.

We constantly represent the unseen with that which is seen.  It doesn't always take on a physical form, but it is nonetheless an important aspect of our visual communication.  We should be careful not to too quickly judge the effectiveness or caliber of work based on our preferences.  If we have interest in distinguishing good art from bad (despite our personal tastes) we must familiarize ourselves more with art.  It is the only way we will learn to detect the subtle differences that separate good art from great art.