THE WAY OF DESIGN
As ordinary adults, we have to ask ourselves, in a way that people two hundred years ago did not, what an adult is…. I would say that an adult is a person not governed by what we have called pre-oedipal wishes, the demands for immediate pleasure, comfort, and excitement. Moreover, an adult is able to organize the random emotions and events of his or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.
It is an adult perception to understand that the world belongs primarily to the dead, and we only rent it from them for a little while. They created it, they wrote its literature and its songs, and they are deeply invested in how children are treated, because the children are the ones who will keep it going. The idea that each of us has the right to change everything is a deep insult to them.... An adult is a person who, in the words of Ansare, goes out into the world ‘and gathers jewels of feeling for others.’
-- Robert Bly, in The Sibling Society
When I was in college, I sent a postcard to a friend that just said, “my life is like this:” over a drawing of a dot in a box. I was comparing my insides to other people’s outsides: they all seemed to have clearly defined goals and objectives, and secure knowledge about where they were headed and how to get there. I felt alienated and unsure. When I saw him again, my friend gave me a hard time for being vague and obscure, but that diagram explained exactly how I felt: infinitely small, trapped not only by my own small knowledge and experience, but also by the unknown world which somehow managed both to loom large and also press in on all sides – without actually touching me! Alienation seemed too pat a word, like a diagnosis that could be cured with a pill.
Years later I discovered a beautifully drawn little Book of Signs, by Rudolf Koch, containing “493 symbols used from earliest times to the middle ages by primitive peoples and early Christians.” Koch says that “the square is the emblem of the world and of nature. As distinct from the triangle [the square] is the Christian emblem of worldliness. In it is symbolized the number four; this has a host of significations, as: the four elements, the four corners of the heavens, the four Evangelists, the four rivers of Paradise.” (Koch, p. 1, 5.) The dot, he explains as “the origin from which all signs start, and…their innermost essence…” So my figurative, intuitive use of this simplest of signs coincided with a more literal, historical meaning, which names the place where chaos ends and life begins, the point that suddenly organizes the blank page, introducing order into formlessness.
We all, of course, find ourselves at that point over and over again, at different stages of our life, but my friend literally could not see that. I was surprised because, like most college students, we’d spent a lot of time philosophizing. But I think, as literal people, we use language to separate ourselves from life, and then ask it to restore us to life. So now, in the same way that we expect nutritional data with our food, we need artists and other non-literate peoples to explain their symbolism – an expectation that keeps art and other critics happy and working, and that my friend held up as his intellectual due. I felt I was merely repeating a common truth, a truth that requires every single thing on earth, no matter how small and weak, to follow a process: we all begin, somehow, as simply as a dot on a page; we must all grow into the world that surrounds and encloses us.
To follow that way consciously means following common processes – growth and decay; birth and death; photosynthesis and oxidation; conduction, convection, and radiation…etc. We recognize the patterns of such change as design. So the patterns of Picasso differ from those of Monet, the waves left by oceans differ from those made by the wind, sound requires ears where light requires eyes – and on. Different qualities in different patterns help us distinguish between designs, name them, and celebrate them. At the same time, every design reflects the common sources of the life that made it, so all our designing shares that fundamental grammar. This discovery – which, once made, continues daily – transforms the challenge of art.
In a consumer culture, however, the challenge of art typically comes down to the explication of absurdly individualistic language that none but the speaker can understand. Accordingly, every expression exists independent of every other, each one an individual interpretation of separate truths, each truth presented as whole, complete, and authoritative. So we learn to evaluate artists, not against a common standard of truth or beauty, but according to her ability to proclaim “her own truth,” her own uniqueness. Judgement comes down to personal preference, like buying ice cream: you like chocolate, I like vanilla; you like Moore, I like Michelangelo. “It’s all good.”
Indeed. As the verb to be suggests, however, if we limit art to a consumer choice, to a state of being, there it must also remain: static, rigid, inflexible, and inevitably dead or dying, like yesterday’s fad. (How carefully we treat it – putting it away in great mausoleums – I mean, museums – but only after a proper period of public viewing in private galleries.)
Art we consume reduces us not just to consumption, but to childishness. Modern design begins with self as consumer, in a world where all things mirror the self. This give us “modern,” “post-modern,” and “industrial” design – not to mention “designer clothing,” “designer water,” and truly bizarre concepts like “trademarks” and “intellectual property,” by which individuals and mortal human beings claim authorship and control over everything from seeds, to genetic codes, and family names. In the market-driven world of career, money, power, status, comfort and consumption, every design is a product, and every designer is up for sale. Work must generate ever-increasing profits for an ever-growing market in an ever-expanding economy. Such growth works like cancer, and converts our inter-dependent, cooperative selves into isolated, competing, selfish, and life-destroying tumors. Technology and wealth “free” us from traditional labors, but replace wisdom with gratification, art with ego, and beauty with pathology. Even in traditional societies, the global market has perverted tradition and made it the scapegoat in a global war on beauty. The market, blind to beauty, sees all things as resources, then as products manufactured “to meet the demand of the markets” (magically created by advertising), and finally, as profits, “to have and to spend.” Reduced from person to consumer, you must compete “to get your needs met.” Adulthood no longer means that you “put away childish things.” Instead of outgrowing toys, adults are merely expected to buy bigger, more expensive ones; we buy cars, equipment, and houses, instead of crayons, rattles, and blocks. Of course, the wealthy and powerful serve themselves first. The rest eagerly try to “make themselves marketable,” a strategy that gives them brief value as small, weak, and ultimately disposable units that simply add increments of cash value to the corporate account. Mechanized, the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth becomes production, recycling, and disposal. Rather than a cycle, however, we now imagine history and progress coming to a final end as a used-up planet covered in more-or-less toxic waste.
It’s a bleak picture, but no matter how passionately painted or performed, to call it art only makes it bleaker. By contrast, if we understand art as a way to enter into and follow the fundamental processes of life, death, and rebirth, then we may find hope. This kind of art invites us into a living stream of beauty, into the way of design.
The word design comes from the same Latin source as designate, which suggests a choice, a literal “marking out,” as of plans on paper – but the root meaning goes deeper, to a source it shares with such words as sign, sequel, suitor, pursuit, second, and, interestingly, society. This root meaning is, simply, “to follow.” What does design “follow” and what does it mean to follow “the way of design”? If I’m working with others, I’ll often begin by asking them to look around for some natural object that they like. Then, together, we can ask:
“Look – here’s a beautiful leaf, tree, or fruit. How does it achieve the properties that have made it just so? How does the leaf achieve leafness? What does the tree do that attracts you to it? What’s beautiful about the fruit? What’s going on?”
This allows us to talk about beauty, not in terms of absolutes or even relative qualities, but in terms of art – not what the leaf is, but what the leaf does. The interpretation of actual experience leads to identifying process and pattern, which is how design becomes apparent. As we discuss those workings, we can begin to see design as a stage in a continuing process – the leaf dies, the tree falls, we eat the fruit, and the cycle continues.
To follow the way of design, then, means using all of our arts to align our living with truth and beauty: drawing, dreaming, making, musing; arguing, analyzing, and legislating; cultivating, reaping, and sowing; singing, dancing, and designing – all shape the patterns of life and land, the means by which culture fits together with universal cycles of birth, growth, and death. Art, then, challenges us not to create – that’s the province of the divine – but to use our gifts and abilities to fit ourselves and our work together with the whole, which was here when we arrived, and will persist after our great-grandchildren are forgotten. Art challenges us not just to make, but to see and to feel, to understand and to participate.