At this point we are no longer discussing the presence of form, but its function. This is negotiable. Use is dependant on context, need, analogy, and experience. People will use a tool as needed in a particular instance, and thereby, a more general tool can address itself to a larger body of needs and finds more universal utility. People also apply a solution from one problem to another that they consider analogous to the first. Their application of design to this set of challenges may be based on their experience with a particular tool or set of tools, their experience with the problem or need in question or one considered analogous, or their observation of another’s situation.
Over time, good and useful solutions are perfected and become conventions: the norm. This makes life easier and progress swifter in many ways. No need to re-invent the motor for each revision to the lawn mower paradigm, especially when the revision concerns the wheels or cutting mechanism. Yet not re-inventing the basic components of a design can result in dead weight or worse, a restriction of the possibilities one has available to work with in one’s conception of reality. One can take too much for granted.
The arts, and for now I am referring to the Fine Arts of Western Culture, are simultaneously based on convention and inventiveness. The very designation “arts” has been applied to the genesis of convention. In Plato’s Republic, an artist is a master of particular set of conventions, including those pertaining to war or say, plumbing. The definition of art given here is thus closer to the modern sense of an “artisan” or master of some trade. This idea of an art representing mastery over a particular set of conventions has refined itself throughout history, to the present in which the Particular Set of Conventions one masters in order to be an Artist are the “classical” or Fine Arts disciplines of painting, sculpture, music, dance etc. Yet masters of these Particular Sets of Conventions (the Fine Arts again) have also traditionally been expected to innovate, and they do, as do many who never become “masters” because their innovations lead them right out the door of the Fine Arts. In fact these Fine Arts have lost some of their designations and clear boundaries both between themselves and the rest of the world. There are fewer of these “masters” as well, in the classical sense, who work strictly within a single field, a single discipline. And why is this?
The is clearly nothing wrong, so we shouldn’t panic. People still love beautiful dancers and fast guitar players, not much has changed.
Yet if a need exists, solutions are found. Over time a useful solution may be continually refined, eventually being appreciated for its own internal elegance. It could be possible to imagine a solution where as it developed on its own over time that it might outlast its initial need and even loose sight of it, thus developing its own structure and evolving as a form on its own. We are then in the presence of a complex form, a beautiful set of conventions that, like the vermiform appendix of the human body, is a relic. Whatever problem it posed a solution to has long been forgotten, and like the appendix, it can even contain the seeds of systemic distress.
Still, if this vestige is considered elegant or beautiful enough by enough people, some will find it so important as to defend it against anything they might perceive as a threat to it. While simple conservation might serve fine for their purposes (after all, why not preserve in a living way such fine works of human refinement?), often people adopt a more militaristic approach toward what they fear to be a threat to these elegant solutions to long forgotten problems. Thus, (an individual?) categorically negative first reaction to an experimental approach seen as a threat to a much beloved set of conventions could result from fear fed by cultural anxiety created out of the loss of the reason for the conventions to exist in the first place.
Perhaps this is why many become so hung up on ‘meaning’ in the arts. The idea that there is some meaning believed to be lurking in the background of an art piece beyond what is simply there in front of one serves to restore the lost reasons behind these conventions. It is no surprise then, that such meanings are expected by many people to be explicit, non-discursive, presented objectively and wherever possible re-expressed in a secondary medium (the explanatory text). This attempt at the restoration of lost meaning for swollen conventions is one way of appraising value the arts for a large number individuals.
In the absence of a clear use, people have nothing to evaluate the situation (environment) before them with. This situation, when not ignored, often leads to a sort of panic. Outside the arts, things are instantly evaluated for use conscious or not, and confusing, atypical objects or ideas are filed for later, forgotten, or in a few cases, followed to the genesis of a new perspective or until they are rejected as an unsuccessful route. Within the arts, a similar algorithm is applied. This is learned in school or socially, from or other people’s behavior in real life or films or whatever. Ideas of aesthetic, narrative structure, and certainly “meaning” become criteria by which art is judged, by comparing it to how these values are perceived to exist in a handful of historically acknowledged works (which, in most cases, the viewer hasn’t experienced). It is curious how many people who have not actually seen a famous art work, even reproduced, can still explain its “meaning”, as if the object exists as a grammatical construction more so than it’s physical embodiment.
The arts are, in fact, by nature conversational. That is one use of many objects. The arts are discursive, and perceptive disciplines. Innovation has always paradoxically, in light of what has been discussed just previously, been part of the expectation of the consumer of art works, and curiosity and the asking of questions expected to be part of the working process of artists.
So the arts in the west have evolved into a new use from within their own tradition. Now, through experimental forms, the arts can point anywhere. They point inward and outward, and possibly infinitely. Inward, certainly, combining what used to be viewed as distinct media, incorporating critical discourse as or into art works themselves and in many other ways, and outward also: right out of these traditional disciplines, and out of the refined conventions of the fine arts themselves, almost back around to Plato’s sense yet, importantly, without the need to ‘master’ anything. The arts have become a place where ideas from many disciplines can be juxtaposed or examined in light of one another’s criteria, they can be made algebraically interactive with each other with unknown results. This is a laboratory for cultural, individual, aesthetic, historical, scientific, political, improvisational, emotional, empirical, expressive, and or introverted questions, design responses, examinations, and problems and curiosities of all kinds.
At this point we are no longer discussing form, but function , which along with form is negotiable.