“It’s not a negation, it’s a celebration. It’s just idea” (I’m not sure if I transcribed the last bit verbatim, but I believe it carries the point).

This is by far one of my favorite pieces of modern art. Not because it is the most beautiful, but because it is such that it galvanizes people and it tends to lead to a number of readings. In the removal of what would be a very valuable painting (the cheapest De Kooning sketch I’ve seen retails for $7,500) Rauschenberg attempts to create art. Examined through Eaton’s six theories of aesthetics, you get (1) a work of a famous painter erased by another famous painter, (2) a weird situation, (3) another weird situation, and (4) a reading of the painting as assuming the value of the piece and the further value of the removal of the formal qualities of the sketch. Between (1) and (4) there is an argument for the value of the piece as art, but (2) and (3) are odd at best. The process of creating the work of art actually occluded the audience from seeing it’s source and left little in the final piece other than, perhaps, the choice of material upon which De Kooning had decided to sketch.

Here you have a value that is contextual. The value of this piece of work is not about Rauschenberg’s wielding of an eraser (in the sense that a Pollack is about his wielding of a stick with paint on it) any more than it is about De Kooning and his ability to find a picture that is difficult to erase (although what a great part of the story that is!). It is about the artists, but more the concepts of the artists. Taken a step further, it is about the context of the art world and the pervasive ideas of that era. The artist is valuable as one who acts in this world. De Kooning is valuable because his actions in paint represent himself and thus have value. Rauschenberg enjoys equal status and as such his actions are equally valued. Thus, the piece creates cognitive dissonance while reveling in a certain amount of it’s own absurdity.

Okay, now for the big slight of hand – how this ties into interaction design. While the previous example requires a certain modernist notion in the value of the act of the artist as an ivory tower genius (which if I really wanted to discuss I would have referenced Merda d’artista), I wish to roll that into a greater construct of the context of the work. It is notable because it simultaneously fed into and disrupted the contemporary thought of its time. What’s more, this is not a De Kooning (or Jasper Johns, for that matter) painting of Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning, but the actual erased item itself, in all of its absent glory.

The former bit calls to mind Erik Stolterman’s notion that the Designer is one who destroys. Not just the superficial destruction of the painting (for Rauschenberg didn’t seem to have anything against this particular drawing or any of De Kooning’s other work), but a destruction of the idea of what an artist does. Not complete destruction, mind you, but at least a statement that the previous model was imperfect. In this way, an interaction designer attempts to find a better way; they design a better device (eg an iPod) not because they hate the original, but because they see a potential in a different concept and believe there to be value in that. Additionally, as per the latter bit, the message is conveyed so that the form is the content. The beauty of the work is not conveyed by representation, but rather the blanked canvas is the ultimate representation of the concept that it represents. This is an area that becomes tricky in interaction design. One could argue that command line is the only true representation of the machine (or, shudder, machine code). I don’t really want to take that stance, but I still wonder why an iPhone app would require leather binding. Where does the line exist between complete transparency and blatant skeuomorphism? I believe there is importance in that question, although I am not yet in a position to answer it.

Advertisements