22 February 2010

What is art? Part two

So last night I posed a rhetorical question: what is art?

I was thinking about that question because one of my readers and Twitter pals Christine sent me a link to something that made her roll her eyes. She and I tend to roll our eyes at the same things, so she wanted to share this particular eye roll. Before I get too far ahead of myself, Christine Tweets as @pillowthrowdeco. She's also the pillow maker to the stars and you can see her wares at her Etsy store. If you're north of the 49th parallel, she has a store on iCraft.

Anyhow, she sent me a link to a post written by Casa Sugar a couple of years ago. Now Casa Sugar's a great website and she deserves a lot of credit for spurring the conversation she did in her comments when she ran a poll asking what people thought of this lamp by Philippe Starck.

That was one of four Gun Lamps Philippe Starck designed for Flos a couple of years ago. The comments on Casa Sugar were pretty uniformly horrified by the lamp. And based on their comments, they were missing the point Starck was making with that series. A lot of people thought the lamp was glorifying gun violence. They were also laboring under the mistaken idea that this was some readily-available thing.

I suppose it helps to know who Philippe Starck is. 

Philippe Starck is the 61-year-old enfant terrible of the design world. If René Magritte and Salvador Dalí ever got together and made housewares, the result would be something akin to what comes out of the mind of Philippe Starck.

Philippe Starck is an artist in every sense of the word. I define art as a motive as much as an execution. And in my mind, art is the act of an artist observing and interpreting the world he sees. As he interprets the world, he invites me to see the world as he sees it and at the same time, he challenges me to see it for myself. Ponderous definition I know, but it's taken me years to come up with that and that's as streamlined as I can get it.

Anyhow, Starck turns his artist's eye on the world around him and the result is a tumult of shocking, offensive and as often as not, pretty objects.

Here's a handful of them.

He's also an interior designer and an architect. This is a hotel lobby in Argentina.

Amazing. Now back to the gun lamps that offended so many people on Casa Sugar.

Here's the lamp again.

It's plated in 18 karat gold and on the base, it reads Happiness is a Hot Gun.

The shade is black and there are gold crosses on the inside of the shade.

I smell symbolism at work.

Sure enough, in Starck's own words:
Black as colour of death
Crosses of our dead ones
Gold colour as ambition
War weapons; domestic weapons, bedside, table, living room weapons.
Aux Armes everywhere, as an ending...
Happiness is a hot gun...
My intent was to create objects to remind us that our state of well-being is the result of somebody else dying.
Philippe Starck
Hmmm, that doesn't sound like the glorification of gun violence to me.

These Gun Lamps are intended to be art pieces, clearly. And they're priced as such. Despite the misinterpretations, I can't help but think Monsieur Starck got the reaction he was after precisely.

I think they're hilarious. Brilliant even. I can't see me buying them for me, but I'm sort of glad they're out there.

So. Do these lamps work as art? As illumination? As decor? Or do they fail on all counts?


  1. Never heard of the guy, but I'm glad you brought this up because I really like his work. That demented teddy bear is fantastic and I do like those gun lamps.
    I have a friend on Facebook, a college classmate, who is into photography. She posted a picture that she'd Photoshopped with some art brush filters and someone responded by saying that it looked like something by Thomas Kinkaide. The commenter meant that as a compliment but if I were her I'd have been mortally insulted. How awful. That guy churns out pablum, not art. I just can't figure out how or why those insipid paintings ever became so popular.

  2. I love the teddy bear too. I think having anything I did likened to the work of Thomas Kinkade would make me close up shop and find another line of work.

  3. I do like the orange reemer --does it come in high-impact plastic?

  4. The Juicy Salif is always cast in aluminum, no plastic. They're really easy to find. Is it just me or do those things allude to the queen alien in Aliens?

  5. I had the delightful opportunity to chat with Mr. Stark in NYC last year. He was most adamant that he does not consider himself an artist. He considers himself a CREATOR & he was quite passionate about the difference. Wonderful and thoughtful post Paul!

  6. That's right. One of my first interactions with you was about Monsieur Starck. I'd love to know how he divides "artist" from "creator."

  7. The lamp base gun should be made fully operational. We've had a few home invasions in our town recently. Imagine the look on the B&E guy's face when he realizes I've shot him with a lamp! I'd probably have to go buy a new light bulb.

    Stark's mind is definitely skewed and he's certainly thinking outside the box. (IMHO) He is no artist. It should be noted he calls himself a "creator" and not a "craftsman" --there's a difference.

  8. What ever he is, I want that teddy bear. The gun lamps? Meh, too easy.

  9. I have a probably-eternally-unfinished blog draft on the what is art subject...

    My definition is really similar to yours Paul. I said something about engaging the senses and allowing us a peak into another person's perspective.

    I'm thinking now that it also has something to do with honesty and transparency. Maybe we are irritated by commercial art that has become predictable and formulaic (Kincaid). It feels insincere.

  10. I suspect that objects that are designed to be useful are not really art, and that's where the difference between creation and art lies. I mean, you might sit on a Henry Moore sculpture, but that's not its primary purpose. You are meant to sit on a Louis Ghost chair, and that it's thought provoking and might change the way you see the world is a bonus. Or something!

  11. Starck is well known in Australia because of the things he's done for Alessi. Those Louis Ghost chairs pop up in house spreads all the time, too. However... I've heard that the lemon squeezer above doesn't actually do the job it's meant to do, which is a fail, even if it IS elegant-looking.

  12. I own a Salif and I can say that I've never used it. I think it's too beautiful as an objet. I've heard the same thing about their utility.

  13. Kit: Is that unfinished blog post the one you're writing to appear here? I hope I hope. I like the nuance of honesty and transparency in your definition.

    Sarah: That's a distinction I never thought about before. Let me go back to work on my definition of art. Hmmmm.

  14. i would buy and use a starck gun lamp in my own home in heartbeat (if i could afford it). it is art in the best sense of the word- beautiful, challenging and witty.

    starck is every bit an artist, he just happens to do a lot of his work in a mass market medium. there is no reason art needs to be confined to a one off, special piece. it comes in all shapes, sizes, forms, and availability.

    yay art!

  15. Amen brother! Thanks Christian, I love your joy when it comes to this stuff. You take the gun lamp, I'll take the mutant teddy bear.

  16. I saw your first post yesterday, Paul and thought, "Ho boy." What is art and what is art vs. craft are two eternal conversations. I have known groups of museum curators to argue over whether or not Kinkaid's work is "art". One put the kibosh on the whole discussion by saying, "Look, my parents have a Kinkaid over their couch and they love it and they think it's art. That's good enough for me."

    One man's Kinkaid is another man's Stark.

    Definitions of art are totally personal and subjective. In fact, definitions in general are personal and subjective. Dictionaries are one thing, personal experience is quite another.

    As for the "Is it art or is it craft?" I say, "Is it good?" or "Is it great?" There is so much melding of materials, methods and intent these days. Maybe the question is "Does it work?"

    I'll go away now.

  17. not sure last post went thru so forgive me if redundant! I have lots of funky, unusual art in my home. Stuff I love. Most of my friends look at it and shake their heads. But then again, they are the folks who call my Phillipe Starck Victoria ghost chairs "plastic". Ahem! Those are polycarbonate I will have you know!

  18. Nancie: Aside from my dismissing that Kinkade dreck, I hope I haven't been too dogmatic about this. I do want to hear what everybody thinks, even if they think I'm full of it. I love this conversation and one of the reasons is what Christian pointed out earlier. In a forum like this, this is a safe and satisfying debate. It's not even a debate, just a weighing in --an exchange of ideas. I could have this conversation every day and be very happy for it. But then again, I'm not an artist so I don't have a dog in this race.

    Cheryl: How well do Starck's Ghost chairs hold up to use?

    Christine: This is all your fault. And if you're serious about mutant teddy bear making, I'll be 45 on May 25th. 45! Oy!

  19. And Nancie, please never go away.

  20. I love the art debate. I've always thought that art is what makes you think or FEEL something when you experience it. So much of what people consider "art" is nothing more than insipid illustration at best, and it's too bad. I like art to be a puzzle for my brain, and engage me everytime I look at it.. even years later.

    Love the gun lamps, as art though, not as "decor".

    (and omg, I've wanted to comment on this ALL day but I was too busy at work)

  21. I get so carried away with my appreciation for them as objets d'art that I forget they're sold as decor. If there were one made of each and they were in a gallery or museum I'd be falling over myself in ecstasy. Although a shlef of them at a Target would be pretty cool too. An installation meant to upset the delicate balance of suburbia.

    Did I mention that I love it when art is subversive?

  22. More than anything, I believe this is a cultural distinction for Starck. He asked me if I had ever read a French phone book. I had to admit, that no, I had found other things to do while in Paris. Holding an imaginary phone book in his hands, he read down the page~ (you must imagine his French accent here) " Mr. Smeeth, artist...Mr. Smeeth, artist...Mr. Smeeth, artist." Making his point that in France artists were a cliche', so therefore how could he be one? Let's face it, if the world was created in 7 days , then what could Starck possibly consider himself other than (a) creator? The post where I wrote about the conversation is here: http://tinyurl.com/yewzzzg

  23. JoAnn: I remember reading that for the first time around a year ago. It's great stuff. Starck is on my short list of people I'd love to meet.

  24. I'm a big fan of anything that makes people throw back their heads and howl without considering the background and implications of the artist or the art style.

  25. Great post!
    I really need some visual inspiration like this for my next design project for graduate school.
    Can you give me advice on some designers for more inspiration like this one, Beau Mcclellan, Serge Mouille or
    Find out the perfect mix between 40’s, 50’s and 60’s music legacy and lighting pieces!
    Visit www.delightfull.eu or
    www.youtube.com/DelightfullLighting and by the way visit also www.bocadolobo.com. they have beautiful luxury pieces!
    I really enjoyed your blog. I’ll come back to see what you post next!


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