The Australia Council and Design
The Australia Council and Design: A Serious Lacuna (published in Overland, 172, Spring, 2003 © Donald Richardson, 2003




The recent report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry - which was conducted during 2002 - reveals a serious deficiency in the conceptual structure of the visual sector of the Australia Council. In short, this is that there is no board or committee covering design.

This deficiency was both revealed in many submissions and also alluded to in the report itself, most significantly on pages 30-31 (28-30 in the on-line version). Although the inquiry specifically excluded design - its scope was 'the visual arts and craft' - many contributors talked a lot about design, and the report itself mentions the term on nearly every page!

To practitioners, there is nothing surprising about this, but the report clearly errs in that it makes no attempt to discuss or explain the situation. It merely notes that - in nearly every educational institution in the country - craft has, in fact, actually been replaced by design. More significantly, it quotes a number of submissions which reveal that there is general confusion about what craft actually is. And it blandly states that 'craft practitioners themselves are increasingly insisting on being recognized as designers....'

Clearly there is a problem here, yet all this is reported with a straight face - as if it signifies nothing. Surely, it should have generated a major recommendation to the effect that the Australia Council (whose categorization and terminology the inquiry used) should redress this serious lacuna in its conceptual structure. But, it didn't!

The inquiry was sponsored by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA), not by the Australia Council, and just what the connection is between the two has not been made public. But no doubt DCITA sought the Council's advice on terminology. And the report is probably protecting the Council by claiming that substantive conceptual issues, such as the connection, confusion or difference between craft and design are mere matters of 'nomenclature' (page 30; pages 28-29 in the on-line version).

But this is about more than names. Craft and design - as well as art - are real, existing, distinguishable and interconnected entities in the visual world, and the report is letting us down by not recommending the rationalization of all three into the Council's conceptual structure. Clearly submissions to the inquiry indicate that there is a need for this to happen.

In the past, design had a place in the Australia Council, but it quietly slipped out of sight as long as a decade ago! This seems to have been at least in part due to confusion - or, perhaps, confrontation - with craft. Reviewing the following history, one feels the clandestine clash of powerful egos with vested interests, made more complex by poor conceptualization and inadequate use of language (none of which - one has to admit - is uncommon in the visual sector). But one is unable to be sure because, in this arcane system, none of the changes were ever discussed publicly and none of the protagonists ever identified. The system has been entirely closed - for whatever reason. It is high time that it be opened.

Design and the Australia Council
When the Australia Council was set up in 1970, design was not included, but this was objected to by some leading architects who insisted that architecture is as much art as painting is. Consequently, the Architecture and Design Committee was formed. This became the Design Arts Board in 1984, alongside the two separate Visual Arts and Crafts Boards. Three years later, art and craft were amalgamated into the Visual Arts and Crafts Board, and the Design Board was established independent of it. In 1988, this board became a committee again, but with the avowed intention 'to concentrate on the arts-related aspects of design' - whatever that meant!

However, only one year later - in 1989, all three boards were telescoped into the one: 'Visual Arts/Craft and Design'. The architects must have been unhappy with this arrangement because they withdrew from the Council entirely and formed their own Design Academy. But this entity also disappeared from the radar screen after a short while.....

One can only surmise and speculate about the reasons for these changes in nomenclature because none seem to have ever been justified or discussed publicly. Perhaps they track the Council's gradually maturing conceptualization of the field. Perhaps they are the result of the bureaucracy of the Council having been largely composed of well-meaning amateurs, rather than practitioners. But one unsatisfactory aspect of it is the entire disappearance of design from the Council's visual sector from about 1989.

Definitional Problems
It is a commonplace that conceptualization within the visual sector is a total mess in the West (the problem is not so acute in other cultures), but it behoves a national body like the Australia Council to sort it out, rather than avoiding it or denying it. That it has patently failed to do so is a national scandal.

This mess has developed over a century or so due to the fact that leading theorists, in defining such entities as art or architecture, have often been less than helpful. Thus, for example, Nikolaus Pevsner delivered the dictum: 'a bicycle-shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture'. (But, isn't even the greatest piece of architecture a building?) And Herbert Read, in a statement that was intended to be revelatory (!) declared that pottery is the highest form of art.

But the most confusing pronouncement is E H Gombrich's 'there really is no such thing as Art; there are only artists.' (So - what do artists make if it is not art? And what are all those things in art galleries?) Unfortunately, people have taken Gombrich's ridiculously illogical maxim as an excuse not to define art (if it doesn't exist, isn't it futile to define it?).

'Definitions' like these have only confused the issues. And none of them is any guide to understanding - or what we should call - what is excluded from their definitions - What is not-art? What is not-architecture? What else is there in art other than pottery?

Art, Craft and Design
We have no way of knowing what those who made submissions to the inquiry meant when they used the terms 'art', 'craft' or 'design' - although they obviously believed that they were naming categories that actually exist - because there is still no agreed definition of any of them.

I cannot understand why people find the field so difficult to categorize. If we take a good, clear, logical, look - without prejudice, and leaving aside the legacy of Pevsner, Read, Gombrich et al - at the entire universe of things humans make, we find they fall easily and logically into the functional or the non-functional. 'Functional' is a term that has been used for many years by designers and design theorists. No dictionary definition of the term covers adequately its usage in this theory, but it is usually used to indicate a constructed entity that is inherently intended to be instrumental to human survival or well-being. Thus, it covers buildings, machines, utensils, clothing, communications, advertising, entertainment, traffic systems etc etc.

It is generally agreed that people who create these things 'design' them and that these people are, therefore, designers. Even with identical mass-produced things, like cars or coffee-cups, a designer created the prototype from which all the clones derive. It is usually easy to decide whether a made object is intended to be functional or not; in fact, this category is so easily defined that one really wonders what the problem is with the Australia Council excluding design from its structure. Common parlance speaks of 'house design', 'furniture design', 'product design', 'environmental design', 'industrial design' etc etc. Most of the things humans make, in fact, are functional and - therefore, in principle - belong in the category design. It is an indispensable category and the Australia Council has diminished its own status and authority by ignoring it.

As to the non-functional, this is largely confined to pictures and sculptures in their many and various forms: things that are created entirely for aesthetic reasons - things that we might call 'beautiful' or that arouse in us some other emotion. This is not to say that these things have no - or negative - instrumental value, but that this is not their primary reason for existence. Such things are usually termed art and the people who make them artists.

So - where does craft come in? As submissions to the inquiry indicated, not nearly so much these days as it did. The problem is embodied in the history of the usage of the term. Ever since the Arts and Crafts Movement of the nineteenth century, craft has been juxtaposed to art, and this duality was revived in the post-World War II Crafts Movement. This was necessitated to redress the blatant conservatism and elitism of the afficionados of high art. There was a need to recognize the inherent human worth - and, often, the beauty - of every-day manufactured or crafted things. Thus, the Crafts Movement embraced - and gave status to - many things which the arcane art curatoria ignored: pottery, fabrics, fashion, jewellery - even sculpture in media other than bronze and marble and painting in media other than oils and watercolours. In those days, architecture had its own recognized status. It was in this cultural milieu that the Australia Council was formed.

Clearly there was considerable overlap - and confusion - between craft and design in all of this, and the Australia Council has erred greatly in never defining the boundaries of, and the interactions between, the two. This is a great shame and has caused many practitioners immense anguish over the years. But surely, as in the case of the mass-produced motor-car, there is a clearly-distinguishable difference between the person or persons who designed the prototype and those who clone the vehicle by the relatively uncreative use of skills. In the past, these latter have been referred to as 'tradespeople', 'craftspeople' or 'artisans', but now we usually call them 'workers'. They are those who use skills in relatively uncreative ways to realize the things designers have designed. Thus, skill is the true essence of craft. It is time to realize that the Crafts Movement has served its purpose in having us recognize the value of functional things as equal to - through different from - works of art, but that the world has moved on. What we value most in a ceramic vessel by a Harold Hughan or jewellery by a Darani Lewers is the creativeness of their design. The skill of manufacture can be performed by artisans or machines - but its originality is that of a designer. Designer-makers, of course, execute their concepts themselves.

And, of course, those who use pottery or metal materials and techniques to create non-functional things are artists.

None of this is mere theory. It describes the world as it really is, and if this system of designation were adopted by the Australia Council, every practitioner of every type would not only be included but would also be honoured with an appropriate and valid term.

Some Complications.....
There would remain some minor problems, which would have to be overcome by education (but this is par for the course: it only requires intelligent leadership to institute). For one thing, 'art' is commonly used in popular parlance as an honorific rather than to designate a category of human activity. (This is ironic, given that our ocker culture heaps scorn on art per se!) If anything made by humans achieves excellence - be it brain surgery, sport, politics, accounting or mathematics (actually, anything but art itself) - it is 'art'. This probably derives from a passé definition of art as 'skill'. We even call a major building like the Sydney Opera House 'art', although it clearly is functional - and, therefore, design.

The architects who, in the 1970s, insisted that architecture is 'art' were, of course, in error. Perhaps they wished to accrue some of the intellectual status of art (and the prospect of government funding, maybe?) to their own profession. But, more probably, they were unhappy that architecture/design had been excluded from the honorific of 'art'. However, design has its own cachet, even though the term is rarely, if ever, used as an honorific.

The same dilemma characterizes our dealing with Aboriginal, or indigenous, practice. Although many people with vested interests refuse to acknowledge it, the unspoilt Aboriginal culture had no concept of 'art' as it is understood in the modern West. All individuals learned the traditional forms of painting and of making functional things as they progressed into adulthood - and were forbidden to use these forms divergenly or creatively, often under threat of punishment. It is no denigration to admit this. Aboriginal culture was different from the Western in this respect, as in many others. In fact, it is yet another example of cultural hegemony to try to subsume traditional Aboriginal work into the western concept of 'art'. This does not apply, of course, to Aboriginal practice which adopts 'western' creativeness in areas where it is free to do so.

The contemporary western concept of art as being untrammeled, individual self-expression has changed the way we must view ancient traditional cultures in the West also. Modernism has changed things to the extent that most works made before the nineteenth century can no longer be called 'art' in the sense in which the term is used today. We have to maintain a valid sense of history in all these matters.

The term design, too has its complications. In Renaissance Italy, it meant 'drawing' of any sort, but this meaning has not survived to today. However, it is commonly used to mean the composition of any work of art, craft or design. The confusion generated by this usage, too, has to be tackled by remedial education.

Finally, it has to be emphasized that the categories art, craft and design as delineated here are not confining and mutually exclusive. As it was often put to the inquiry, many practitioners today use notionally functional forms and craft skills to create works of art: pottery and glass containers which were never intended to contain anything, fabric creations which are impossible to wear, jewellery that would maim any wearer. This is a current fascination, but it does nothing to invalidate the distinctions between the categories; in fact, it draws our attention to - and creatively comments upon - their validity.

A historical validation of this flexibility and inclusivity is Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Although usually treated as art (which the pictures - considered in themselves - are), it is also a great work of design (Michelanglo had to follow what we today would call a design-brief which covered its contents; but, also, it had to be designed to fit - and to fit in with - the structure of the ceiling), and that it is a master work of craft was proven by its recent cleaning. Categorizing this great work in this way makes it possible for us to appreciate its various and complex interactions more intelligently.

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles is another case worth discussing within the suggested categorization. Those who objected to our paying so much for it felt vindicated when it was discovered that its paint was falling off. But the picture was bought for its art value, not its craft, and the peeling paint was stuck back on by craftspeople trained in the skill of restoring works of art.

Thus, the suggested designation of art and design as creative pursuits (the latter only dealing in the functional) and craft relating to the relatively un-creative use of skill is not a theory, or even just the present writer's opinion, but a statement of objective fact. It describes the real world as it is. Those practitioners who resist categorization in this way have to realize that they already are categorized by their practice, whether they recognize and admit it or not.

The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts has conducted an inquiry into the visual field using Australia Council terminology and conceptualization and the report clearly shows that this is inadequate and out of date. It is now incumbent on the Council to recognize this and take the initiative to lead the visual sector out of the mess it is currently in. It is far from an impossible task, but it does require dedication, intelligence and integrity.

If it does not tackle it, we will need an inquiry into the Australia Council itself.


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