Location of Ornament: Typographic Jungle of Marian Bantjes

Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2017

From the modernist art perspective, text is the center of meaning in rational graphic design. It manifests itself in the form of simple typography and is superior to image as illustration. Therefore, a successful and functional graphic design carries its message through legible typography, clear imagery and balanced compositions void of ornamentation.  As Alice Twemlow2points out, historically there have been ongoing debates (mostly hostile) about ornament and its position in art and design. The questions are whether it is dishonest and flawed (John Ruskin), if it should be tamed and codified (Owen Jones) or criminalized (Adolf Loos). Yet artists such as William Morris have utilized “purposeful” patterns, and most recently the P&D3 (Pattern and Decoration movement) has celebrated ornament and its artistic meaning. In Islamic art, ornament plays an important role. Titus Burckhardt4 explains that decorated surfaces and geometric interlacements are “direct expressions of the idea of Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world.”(p. 63) Oleg Grabar5 proposes that, “ornament is the ultimate mediator, paradoxically questioning the value of meanings by channeling them into pleasure.” He asks, “Is it possible to argue instead that by providing pleasure ornament also gives to the observer the right and freedom to choose meaning?” (p. 237)

Commonly ornamentation has been associated with women’s craft and domestic arts. Naomi Schor6 argues that the ornamental has traditional connotations of effeminacy and decadence and is not sexually neutral. She proposes that, “the detail is gendered and doubly gendered as feminine.”(p. xlii) She adds that what is threatening about detail is its “tendency to subvert an internal hierarchic ordering of the work of art which clearly subordinates the periphery to the center, the accessory to the principal, the foreground to the background.” (p.15) A number of contemporary female graphic artists7 have created visual spaces for employing and de-marginalizing ornament and detail and challenging the hierarchical logic of dominant graphic design practices.  Marian Bantjes is among this group and has been creating designs that are compactly ornate, obsessively crafted and playfully enigmatic. Her intricate designs fuse old and new, text and image, structure and freedom, familiarity and unfamiliarity in tightly planned configurations that may be unsettling to those with more conventional aesthetic taste. Her eclectic visual spaces are constantly in a state of flux and change. She tends not to become comfortable with a specific style or way of doing, and moves from one idea to the next, weaving together multiple visual references from 14th–18th century calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts, Islamic art, and Persian carpets to Art Nouveau, the Arts & Crafts Movement, Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, Victoriana, psychedelia, graffiti, currency and engraving. She also experiments with different mediums (computer, pen, pencil, crayons, paint) and materials such as sugar, dirt, flowers, plants and insects, cake decorations, plasticine and stickers.

In the introduction of her book I Wonder8 Bantjes states: “My typographic treatment will no doubt cause a certain amount of pain to some of my more rigorously trained colleagues in my profession of graphic design. However I make no apologies for the typographic jungle I’ve painstakingly nurtured.  Each piece has been very specifically designed, yet without disregard for my personal whim and sudden fancies. I maintain that I am, in fact, a very conservative typographer—the book is ultimately readable—but I’m not a conservative person, and if my choices and combinations push a few buttons, well, that is my voice as much as it is in the writing and the illustration. I’ve never claimed to be a paragon of good taste.” (p. 8)

Bantjes’ design is “design of inclusion”. Her art is not neutral. She not only includes herself in her work, but also includes her viewers in her visual spaces. She believes in the intelligence of the viewer to decode her visual language. The ornamental spaces that Bantjes creates connect to the communal memory of the viewers as well as the history of things, and the details that she diligently nurtures construct a unique location for mental and physical closeness. The “typographic jungle” of Bantjes is a densely detailed site for speculation, surprise and wonder. It is a new space that Homi Bhabha9 calls the “liminal space”, where outside and inside, past and present cannot be separated and continually come together and create a site that produces multitude of meanings. This is a “hybrid site” that is neither united nor fixed. This “in-between” site not only recalls the past but also renews it and “innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” as well. (p.55)

In her book Pretty Pictures10  Bantjes reveals the structure of her Sustainability poster (p. 88-89) where we can see the relationship between the word Sustainability (reversed and positioned in the center), two variable repeating patterns (in blue, green, purple and yellow) and the minute images of people (from her own collection and the Library of Congress’ photos).  Bantjes states11, “I love the idea of something that’s recognizable and readable to those who know how to read it, but not everybody else. I like the continuum between the readable and unreadable, the variation there is within that.”  She illustrates time (past, present and future), generations (individuals and families) and the sense of continuum in relationship to the concept of Sustainability in a tapestry of shapes, colors and words. The reversed white text appears in the front and on the surface, yet it is pulled into the ornamental depth of the poster. In this space, patterns and images are intertwined and simultaneously appearing and disappearing. Therefore, she is repeatedly re-ordering the position of background and foreground; at the same time they exist in equal and continual balance sustaining each other without hierarchical order and meaning — expanding from top, bottom, right and left. This is a hybrid space where the ornament is not positioned on the side and visual elements are not in binary opposition. Bantjes explains: “My intention was always to illustrate without illustrating… I want to show it’s possible to make a fully integrated document where the words and images are interdependent, neither able to fully survive without the other. The text is not the same without the imagery, the imagery is not the same without the text.12” (p. 7) Although ornamentation and particularities in Bantjes’ work stir up multitude of feelings and reactions (i.e. anxiety and image overload, refusal to decipher visual clues and create resistance to the details), it does not limit her visual voice and is not restricted by categorizations. In Bantjes’ art ornament opens up a new location for innovation and interruption that is complex and inclusive.



1. “Marian Bantjes is a designer, typographer, writer and illustrator working internationally from her base on a small island off the west coast of Canada, near Vancouver. She is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), and regularly speaks about her work and thoughts at conferences and events worldwide. Her career spans 3 stages: she worked as a book typesetter from 1984–1994: she co-founded and ran a graphic design studio, Digitopolis, from 1994–2003; and since 2003 she has worked on her own as a designer/artist/letterer. It is this latter work for which she has become internationally known.” http://bantjes.com/about/
2. Alice Twemlow (2005) The Decriminalisation of Ornament, Eye Magazine. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-decriminalisation-of-ornament-full-text
3. “P&D flourished as an alternative in American art, in contrast to the painterly abstraction championed by critics such as Clement Greenberg. The energetic work of its artists challenged the status quo of Minimalism, Formalism, and Conceptualism. They valued the bold pattern, craft, and ornament that was prompted in the 1960s and 70s by a new regard for the Women’s Movement and women’s esthetic drive, non-western art, and artists’ travels in Europe, Mexico, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.” http://www.hrm.org/pressbox/Pattern.html
4. Titus Burckhardt (1976) Art of Islam: Language and Meaning.
5. Oleg Grabar (1992) The Mediation of Ornament.
6. Naomi Schor (1987). Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine.
7. Homa Delvaray, Jessica Hische, Becca Clason, and more.
8. Marian Bantjes (2010) I Wonder.
9. Homi Bhabha (2004) The Location of Culture.
10. Marian Banjes (2013) Pretty Pictures
11. In 2007 William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand hired Bantjes to create Sustainability poster for the paper company Stora Enso which she later repurposed some of this design for Mooi’s line of carpets. Bantjes regards this poster as the best piece that she had ever done and currently it is part of the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in
New York City.
12. http://nothingmajor.com/journal/455-marian-bantjes/


© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2017. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #37

Image: Marian Bantjes, Sustainability poster design, 2007



Post-binary Aesthetics

Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2016

Categories such as Western, Non-Western, Eastern, Primitive, Modern, Postmodern art are based on assumptions that there are intrinsic qualities to “Western” or “Non-Western” art that determine their unbreakable identity. But such interpretive practices, in which an artwork is assigned an “essential” identity, have lost their relevance for understanding the complexities of works of art.

Aesthetic essentialism is seen, for the most part, as a philosophical tendency that goes back to Aristotle who writes: “the essence of each thing is one in no merely accidental way, and similarly is from its very nature something that is.” [i] Historically, it has also been part of what Edward Said calls “Orientalism,” and its philosophical arguments presuppose binaries of dominant and other that are intertwined with the political and economic interests of governing classes. Said thus argues that “Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).”[ii] Binaries such as Western/Non-Western and us/them are not simply comparisons but rather a set of power relationships. It is through the concepts, categories, terms and vocabularies of Western that Non-Western is interpreted. Positioning the West in the “center” of interpretation of artistic practices and as the point of reference, limits the multiplicity of interpretations, privileges the West and displaces the Other/Non-West.

If we imagine an artistic practice as a structure with a “center” (such as the artist, viewer, location, form, function, materials), we would be restraining and closing what Jacques Derrida calls the “play of the structure.” As Derrida argues the center constructs “Presence”—what gives the illusion of proximity to Truth without difference[iii] and of totality as Truth free from “otherness.” The function of the center, he writes, is not simply to “balance, and organize the structure” but “to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of the structure.”[iv] By “play” Derrida means a transgression of set limits, the emergence of the “other” in the “same.” In other words, this transgressive “play of difference,” for Derrida, subverts the hegemony of the center and marginalization of the other, by undoing the binaries on which they depend—there is no self-same identity, no “presence,” no essential truth. Each is divided by differences, transgressed by its other.

Post-binary aesthetics is aesthetics of play, of contingency, and mutations. It reads works of art not as “structures” with fixed identities (“center”), nor as simply different from another but as hybrid “events” different in themselves. It reads one artist’s work not as different from another artist but rather understands the same artist’s work at odds with itself, different in itself. Instead of seeking and fixing the difference of Western from Non-Western, a post-binary aesthetics unravels the differences of the Western and Non-Western within themselves. It demonstrates how an artwork can activate the transgressive play of difference, thereby breaking boundaries, disrupting the hegemony of the center and bringing forward the “other.”

An exemplary artist of such dislocating, mutating play is El Anatsui whose enigmatic, large-scale sculptures blur the borders of Africa and West. Discussing this in a conversation session at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2013 El Anatsui was asked to what extent he encourages or invites people to look at his work in terms of African art and African history as opposed to the context in which it is now displayed that is world art and contemporary art? His response was: “I don’t think that is a problem for me. I know as an artist I am trying to reach out to people, no matter where they live or come from. So whether that’s African or Western that just doesn’t matter to me. I regard myself just as an artist.”[v] His response dissolves any center of interpretation for his art: it is neither Western nor African but both, thus blurring the boundaries of international/national, contemporary/traditional.

This decentering is evident in El Anatsui’s complex and colossal sculptures. Although large in scale they are made to be flexible and hung in any configuration with no fixed direction. From a distance they appear to be unified shimmering textiles or curtains, which have been compared both to Venetian mosaics and Vienna Secession fabric designs. However, upon closer examination, they are composed of many discarded liquor bottle caps that are folded, flattened and connected together with copper wires. But these caps are not simply found objects; El Anatsui explains their transcultural and politico-economic significance: “Alcohol was one of the commodities brought with [Europeans] to exchange for goods in Africa. Eventually alcohol became one of the items used in the transatlantic slave trade. They made rum in the West Indies, took it to Liverpool, and then it made its way back to Africa. I thought that the bottle caps had a strong reference to the history of Africa.” [vi]

Historically a piece of aluminum was transformed into a bottle cap as a single object that functioned to seal the bottle of liquor involved in trade of objects as well as humans. Presently a discarded liquor bottle cap not only carries this history but also marks “other” histories, and at the same time it becomes part of many bottle caps that are trashed or recycled in different ways or transformed into flattened metal pieces that are connected together with wire to form immense sculptures by an artist (El Anatsui) to be viewed as objects of beauty and value. As El Antasui also reflects: “I return them [bottle caps] to use by giving them a different function – a higher function – maybe even the ultimate function. Each bottle-top returning as an object of contemplation has the capacity to reveal to us a more profound understanding of life than it ever did as a stopper (on a bottle).”[vii] Through the “play of difference” El Anatsui’s art transgresses binaries—Western /Non-Western, colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed, global/local, fine art/craft, treasure/trash, far/close, stagnation/flux—weaving one into the other, dissolving any “essence” in a rich web of multiplicities.


[i] Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book Gamma.

[ii] Edward Said (1978) Orientalism. (p.43)

[iii] Jaques Derrida (1974) Of Grammatology. (p. 43)

[iv] Jaques Derrida (1978) Writing and Difference. (p. 278)

[v] El Anatsui in Conversation with Susan Vogel, Brooklyn Museum of Art, February 10, 2013.

[vi] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/global-culture/global-art-architecture/a/el-anatsui-old-mans-cloth

[vii] http://newafricanmagazine.com/el-anatsui-unstoppable-master-midst/#sthash.7EYaLjHp.dpuf

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #36 | Summer 2016

Image: El Anatsui, Trova, 2016 (detail images), Aluminum and copper wire, 122 x 117 inches, 109 x 110 inches (installed).

©El Anatsui.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.










Conversations that Matter: Interview with Debbie Millman

Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2015 | New York

 “And remember, we can talk about making a difference,
we can make a difference,
or we can do both.” Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman[i] has been named one of the most influential designers working today.[ii] She is a brand consultant and the President, Chief Marketing Officer at the Sterling Brand[iii] design firm in New York City. She has co-founded the first graduate program in Branding at the School of Visual Arts[iv] with Steven Heller[v] in 2009 and is the Editorial and Creative Director of Print Magazine[vi]. Debbie has written six books[vii] on creative process, design and brands. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times[viii], and Design Observer[ix] and her artworks have been displayed in Chicago Design Museum[x] and The Wolfsonion Museum[xi].

Debbie is also the host of the radio show Design Matters[xii] which is the world’s first podcast about design and creative culture. In 2011, Design Matters was awarded the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award[xiii] and this year the show is celebrating its 10th year anniversary with more than 200 episodes. During the years Debbie has interviewed most fascinating and influential creative people. Her impressive knowledge, clever questions, upbeat attitude, and mesmerizing voice are all the right elements for a unique listening experience and access into the world of many innovative minds. What ties all of Debbie’s many roles (brand consultant, educator, writer, artist, radio show host) is her ability for creating, discovering, connecting and telling stories whether they are about a product, her guests’ experiences or her own life.

I met Debbie at her office at the School of Visual Arts in New York City to have a conversation about Design Matters.

Roshanak Keyghobadi. Debbie you have said: “I decided that interviewing designers who I revered would be an inventive way to ask my heroes everything I wanted to know about them.” Why is it important for you to interview designers and artists?
Debbie Millman: Well, it is a great question. I started out interviewing designers and artists because it was the closest thing to what I did professionally and what I was personally interested in. Over the years that is what I have become known for but in the last year or so I tried to broaden it to not just visual artists but also musical artists and writers. Mostly I am interested now in people that create things. It could be music it could be books it could be design, ideas. How do people go about constructing their lives. I am obsessed with the idea of an arc of a life and how people create their own journeys and paths, how they get over their obstacles and how they combat their own inner demons, how they make sense of the world. That’s what I am really fascinated by

RK: Was this solely a personal interest or you had a bigger plan?
DM: There was no long-term plan. I was cold called by a producer from Voice of America business network[xiv] which was then a fledgling internet radio network. They were interested in the possibility of me hosting a show. But I was required to pay for the airtime and their production abilities. So I was paying to make the show and at the time I felt that everything that I was doing professionally was very commercial and very much geared to profit and I wanted something that was as far from commercial as possible, that had no financial value or measurement. If anybody had told me in 2005 when I started the show that I still would be doing it in 2015, I don’t know if I would have believed them. So it was really essentially season to season, those first 100 episodes. The show taking off from the notion of people listening, part of me feels that it was mostly because there was nothing else out there. Wasn’t that the show was any good because it wasn’t it was really badly produced. The sound was dreadful, there were these horrendous ads every 15 minutes or so and I had no idea what I was doing! I’ve grown as the show has evolved and I think also maybe people have enjoyed watching that as well because I was so terrible at the beginning but still had so much passion for doing it.

RK: Why do you think it is critical to have a more personal dialogue with creative people?
DM: Because everything creative is personal, comes from a personal point of view, comes from a unique way of seeing the world. Even commercial art need to have a personality to it, a reason for being. And I think that anything that is creative has a point of view, a reason for being. I am interested in finding out what that is.

RK: You have said: “I choose guests one way: I want to talk to them. What are their hopes, dreams what do they want to do next. Questions that otherwise I would have not have the opportunity to ask them…it is about design, truth and beauty…and I love that.” Beside designers you have a variety of guests on Design Matters such a Actors, Architects, Cartoonists, Chefs, Comedians, Educators, Historians, Poets, Musician…How do you choose your guests? What is it that you see in one person and you want to invite her/him for your show?
DM: An open heart. Somebody that I think is really interesting for any number of reasons. It doesn’t even matter what it is that they do if they are doing something with their whole heart and doing something with the bigness of the world embedded in the smallness of whatever it is that they are doing. And I find that a privilege. People would actually answer questions about why they do the things they do and reveal their secrets, or their fears, or their insecurities. I think one of the biggest contributions to the creative community that I hope my interviews (whether the written interviews or the podcasts) have made is the notion that even the most extraordinary creative people have doubts and fears and question their abilities. So I think if anyone struggling to make something that hasn’t made it yet or made it big reads or listens to that point of view they might be able to have more courage to do what they want to do. So it gives them a sense of camaraderie of not being alone in that effort.

RK: How do you think interviewing designers, artists and creative personalities have affected you, them and your listeners/viewers?
DM: Well I don’t know what it is necessarily doing to the interviewee but for me and for my listeners in many ways I think it is doing the same thing. It is enriching people’s lives. It is nourishing their inspiration or their need for inspiration. I have to be completely present when I am interviewing someone. I can’t think about anything else there is nothing else in the world except me and that person in that hour. And I have to listen really really carefully because I don’t only want to ask questions that I want to know, I want to ask questions that I think other people want to know the answers to. I have to know when to move on, when things might get tedious for them, how to keep them engaged and open and wanting to answer questions, to keep them from closing down or feeling too revealed. You know there is that line where you want to be really respectful to who they are but also get them to say as much as they feel comfortable saying without being uncomfortable. So it is sort of a game of pool. I want to be able to ask a question that takes the ball to a place where I can also have other questions. So that is part of why I do so much research because whatever they say I want to know what else I can say from that that I already know that make it a better interview. So it is not just somebody talking about what they do and I am hearing it for the first time. It’s somebody talking about what they do in a way that allows me to make connections knowing their body of work, their history, their education, their point of view that allows me to ask questions that are more interesting than just “how come?” or “can you elaborate?” or whatever else. I still will ask those questions sometimes but I want to be able to ask questions that further the conversation and the dialogue not just adds another question.

RK: How do you prepare for an interview? What is the structure and process of your interview? How do you plan it?
DM: Well, the guests have no plan. They have to do nothing. They just show up. And a lot of people ask me: “What do I need to do?” and I say: “Nothing, just show up.” Very very occasionally I won’t be able to find out something about their history that I need to know so I’ll ask that ahead of time. But most of the time I’ll be able to find what I need to. So I like to read everything that they have written, look at every bit of work that they have created and have put out there. I do a lot of really intense research. I want to know about how they grew up, where they grew up, where they went to school, what was the influence of their parents on them, how they made the decision to study what they studied, why they went to school if they went to school, what was it like to get their first jobs. I need to know the complete trajectory of that person’s life so that then I can deconstruct it and ask them questions about each step along the way. So I always start with some history. I try to break the ice with something funny, something that I discovered about them that they can laugh at or smile at and then recognize that it is not an interrogation. This is a celebration of who they are. It is not a “got you” kind of an interview. Let’s basically talk about how amazing you are and why you are who you are and how you are who you are. I used to get accused of fawning over my guests so I tried to pull that back a little bit and now I have a producer so he probably edits some of the fawning out. I still get really excited by talking to people that make things, that make things that I think are amazing. How can you not

RK: One of your guests that have appeared on Design Matters several times from its start in 2005 is Steven Heller. What makes you invite him to the show every year?
DM: Well, he is one of my favorite people in the whole world. We have the best conversations ever. You would think doing the show with him every year people would listen to that show less, people listen to that show more. It is amazing how many people listen to those episodes. Steve is the smartest man in design. Why wouldn’t I want to talk to him every year? It has become a ritual. It was a ritual before the show was “big”. Steve changed my life in the most profound way. He got me my first book deal, he got me this job at SVA. It is a privilege to talk to him.

RK: If you could go back in time, whom would you like to interview from the past?
DM: I had an opportunity last year to interview Michael Graves[xv] and we couldn’t get the scheduling to work and he died and I am crushed. I’ll never get over that. I can’t believe that I had so close of an opportunity to interview him and he died. I would have loved to interview Tibor Kalman[xvi]. I feel really fortunate that I got to interview Massimo Vignelli[xvii], Hillman Curtis[xviii], Bill Moggridge[xix]. To think that those conversations will hopefully last forever or as long as we last is a great gift. To know that if somebody wants to hear Bill Moggridge’s voice have a conversation about his life they can listen to the show, same thing with Massimo. I think I interviewed Massimo two or three times. Tibor died in 1999 and I didn’t start the show until 2005 so that’s unfortunate. Who else? All the great masters, Paul Rand[xx] and Saul Bass[xxi] any of those people I would have loved to interviewed.

RK: What is the most mentioned interview on Design Matters which people tell you about? Why do you think people remember that? Why did it stand out?
DM: Seth Godin[xxii] (my interview with Seth Godin is a really popular one), Milton Glaser[xxiii], Chris Ware[xxiv], Alina Wheeler[xxv]. I think the shows where people are being educated while they are also being entertained are crowed pleasers. Because they are learning something or being inspired and they are also being entertained by how interesting that person is. I get a lot of mail (e-mails and snail mail) people writing me about the show and about different episodes. And then I also get a lot of Tweets where people Tweet to me about a specific show saying I just listened to the show, I loved it. That makes me really happy.

RK: What is the role of Podcasting and Internet in production of Design Matters? What does a Podcast offer your listeners?
DM: I started doing Design Matters before there were podcasts. Design Matters was the first design podcast mostly by accident. It was like oh, we can post it online on iTunes, how awesome, and we started to do that and then podcasting took off and it was a big thing for a little bit and then it stopped being a big thing but I kept doing it and now it is back to being a big thing, and I am still doing it. I’ve gotten a lot of different offers to be part of networks and groups of show that are all selling and I still want to keep it as non commercial as possible. I am really lucky that the School of Visual Arts supports the show. I don’t need to get advertisers. I would like to increase the awareness and that would be a fun thing to be able to do through any kind of network but nobody really wants you to be part of a network if you are not selling ad space or airtime and I don’t want to do that. Up until last year I didn’t even have a logo for the show and the only reason why I ended up creating one and Armin Vit[xxvi] designed it for me with an illustration by Christoph Niemann[xxvii] was because I wanted to have a more interesting square on iTunes and SoundCloud. When I interviewed Aaron Draplin[xxviii] I talked about the fact that I didn’t have a logo and he designed a logo for me as a gift but at that point I still didn’t want a logo. I really want to make this an endeavor that is pure and it is ironic given that I teach logos for a living and make logos for a living and yet I am so resistant to turning this into any type of commercial endeavor. It’s really a labor of love.

RK: Currently there are 224 episodes of Design Matters available for listening and you have received the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award[xxix] for your show. What is the future of Design Matters?
DM: More episodes. I was thinking recently that it would be great to get to 300. I’ve done a lot of live shows too and if I have to put the number out there it is probably at this point closer to 250 but 224 on iTunes. It was exciting to get to 200, it is exciting to get to 10 years and celebrating 10 years. I am just happy to be doing it. I just love doing it as long as people want to listen I’ll do it. I’ll probably do it even people don’t want to listen but it won’t be quite as much fun if nobody cared but hopefully that won’t happen.

RK: Debbie, is there anything that you would like to add to our conversation today that you think is important?
DM: Well, I do think that people get very frustrated in their lives and I see this whether they be my students or different people that I meet in my travels. They feel stuck. You don’t need to wait for somebody to “unstick” you. You can get unstuck by self generating a way out. You don’t need a client to give you a great job. You don’t need to wait for anybody. You can make something if you want to make it. And that’s really where Design Matters came from, from an opportunity to do something that was noncommercial, to do something that was non soul crushing. To do something that no client was saying: “No, you can’t do that.” or “Do it that way.” or “I don’t like this.” or “I’ll love it when I see it.” This was an opportunity to do something that was utterly pure and it fundamentally changed my life. It saved my life too. And I think that’s important for people to know that the very things that you do to save your life can change your life in the process. So if you are feeling frustrated by your day job, your obligations and so forth, consider a way to feed your own soul that might end up feeding the world.



[i] Debbie Millman is a native New Yorker. She was born in Brooklyn and now works and lives in Manhattan.

[ii] Graphic Design USA, 2013.

[iii] http://www.sterlingbrands.com

[iv] http://branding.sva.edu

[v] http://www.hellerbooks.com/docs/about.html

[vi] http://www.printmag.com

[vii] Debbie Millman’s books are: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (2007), The Essential Principles Of Graphic Design (2008), Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (2009), Brand Bible: The Complete Guide to Building, Designing, and Sustaining Brand (2012), Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (2013) and Self Portrait as Your Traitor (2013).

[viii] http://www.nytimes.com

[ix] http://designobserver.com

[x] http://chidm.com

[xi] http://www.wolfsonian.org

[xii] http://www.debbiemillman.com/designmatters/

[xiii] http://www.cooperhewitt.org/national-design-awards/

[xiv] http://www.voiceamerica.com/

[xv] http://michaelgraves.com

[xvi] http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/05/arts/tibor-kalman-bad-boy-of-graphic-design-49-dies.html?pagewanted=all

[xvii] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/28/business/massimo-vignelli-a-modernist-graphic-designer-dies-at-83.html?_r=0

[xviii] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/21/technology/hillman-curtis-a-pioneer-in-web-design-dies-at-51.html

[xix] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/technology/william-moggridge-laptop-pioneer-dies-at-69.html

[xx] http://www.paul-rand.com

[xxi] http://www.artofthetitle.com/designer/saul-bass/

[xxii] http://www.debbiemillman.com/designmatters/seth-godin/

[xxiii] https://soundcloud.com/designmatters/design-matters-with-debbie-91

[xxiv] http://www.debbiemillman.com/designmatters/chris-ware/

[xxv] http://designobserver.com/article.php?id=25178

[xxvi] http://www.underconsideration.com/uc/founders/armin_vit.php

[xxvii] http://www.christophniemann.com

[xxviii] http://www.draplin.com/info/

[xxix] http://www.cooperhewitt.org/national-design-awards/history-of-honorees-jurors/


© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #35 | Winter & Spring 2016

Two Bowls

Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 2015 | New York

Currently a 10th century ceramic serving bowl from Iran resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This bowl was probably made in Samarqand but excavated in the city of Nishapur (in northwestern Iran).[i] The bowl has calligraphic decorations in Eastern Kufic script[ii] that wishes its owners/users “blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”[iii]

Two years ago in Fargo, North Dakota (in north central USA) a ceramic serving bowl was made by the potter Michael Strand[iv] as a component of a project titled Bowls Around Town. This bowl was placed in a carefully crafted wooden box along with a video camera and a recipe journal and circulated among various individuals. In course of several years people would borrow the bowl and it would hold meals that each person has made, the camera will be used to record the process and the recipes, related memories and stories will be written in the journal. Bowls Around Town was part of Engage+Use project that “featured contemporary project-based work that investigated the processes of making, using, and living with bowls.”[v]

Although from different cultures and eras these two bowls have a number of qualities in common. Both bowls are made out of clay and their forms serve their purpose of holding food. They have also been tools for communication with their users – the writings on the bowl from Iran transmit positive messages of wellbeing and happiness and the bowl from Fargo becomes a tool for evoking and transmitting stories. Connection with both bowls from the beginning of their making to every time they have been or are used involves a collective effort. According to art historian Sheila Blair[vi] a team of skilled artisans was involved in making and decorating bowls such as the bowl from Iran. They were the owners/managers, throwing potters, people who did the clay preparation, throwing and turning, painted decoration, glazing, and firing as well as calligraphers, painters for the interior and assistants for the exterior painting. Although the bowl from Fargo has one maker yet it involves a team of facilitators and users such as various communities and groups, families, fire stations, public library patrons or anyone who has hosted the bowl. [vii]

But is there any relationship between the form and function of these two bowls and do they have any aesthetic value? The debate about form and function in art frequently points to the architect, Louis Sullivan[viii] and his famous statement about form following function. Sullivan believed that the purpose of a building establishes the form that it should take. As the continuation of Sullivan’s philosophy Frank Lloyd Wright[ix] proposed the idea of “organic architecture” which believed in the close relationship between human and nature by designing integrated and unified sites and spaces. Walter Gropius[x], who founded the German art school Bauhaus in 1919 and was one of the pioneers of modern architecture, believed in “total architecture” and “total work of art” in which various forms of art are combined to create a singular experience. Iranian philosopher Seyyed Hossien Nasr[xi] believes that Islamic architecture and art have transcendent forms and qualities. Nasr (1973) has stated that: “…men live in forms and, in order to be drawn toward the transcendent, they must be by forms that echo transcendent archetypes.”[xii]. Also Nader Ardalan[xiii] and Laleh Bakhtiar[xiv] (1973) have explained that the function of traditional Iranian art is achieving aesthetic and spiritual Unity. They believe that: “the traditional artist creates the external art form in light of the spirit; in this way the art form is able to lead man to the higher states of being and ultimately to Unity.” [xv]

The shape, color, organic lines, decorations and calligraphy on one bowl and the proportions, form, texture and glaze on the other not only make each bowl sophisticated and beautiful but also offer unique visual experiences to its makers, users and viewers. As philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey[xvi], points out “a work of art is created every time it is esthetically experienced.” [xvii] Dewey believed in the transformative nature of the aesthetic experience and stated that: “art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms. It interprets every shade of expressiveness found in objects and orders them in a new experience of life. Because the objects of art are expressive, they communicate.”[xviii]

The makers of the bowl from Iran have created an expressive vessel that communicates through words, which transform its users eating experience. When the food is gradually consumed and the words are revealed an ordinary bowl becomes an object of beauty and contemplation therefore according to the Islamic thought revealing meaning (mana) through form (surat).

The maker of the Fargo bowl Michael Strand explains that his art practice and mission is to create objects (cups and bowls) which are meant to function as tools for visual, verbal and human interactions. He states: “I make objects that extend beyond the walls of the museum or the confines of a gallery. Without this restriction I work to build bridges between people through shared experiences with functional objects and ideas. Relationship is my content. Working in collaboration is my process. Human connection through art, craft and design is my mission.”

Ultimately although the bowl from Iran and the bowl from Fargo function as practical vessels they are also “objects of art” and vice versa. And most importantly these bowls function as “objects of inquiry” that are expressive and open to new and contemporary aesthetic experiences. The two bowls “build bridges” between makers and users, past and present, meaning and form, form and function.



Bowl. Late 10th–11th century, Iran, Nishapur; present-day Uzbekistan, probably Samarqand. Earthenware. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S.A. 35.6 cm x 10.8 cm.

Bowl. 2013, U.S.A., Fargo, North Dakota. Ceramic. Made by Michael Strand as part of Bowls Around Town project. 36 cm x 14 cm.



[i] Nishapur and Samarqand were under Samanid rule in the 10th century Iran.

[ii] “Eastern Kufic” script is now referred to as “new style script.” It is a script most often associated with the Eastern Islamic World.” Maryam Ekhtiar. (2015)

[iii] “Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]” (40.170.15) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/40.170.15. (July 2011)

[iv] Michael Strand (b. 1970 ).

[v] Engage+Use project and Bowls Around Town were part of a larger exhibition titled Object Focus: The Bowl that was curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland. Object Focus: The Bowl: March 07, 2013 – September 21, 2013. Engage+Use: May 16 – September 21, 2013. http://mocc.pnca.edu/exhibitions/5412/

[vi] Sheila Blair (b. 1948).

[vii] Blair, S. (2013) Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art. Chapter 2: The Art of Writing:A Bowl from Samarqand. P. 13.

[viii] Louis Sullivan (1864-1924).

[ix] Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

[x] Walter Gropius (1883-1969).

[xi] Seyyed Hossien Nasr (b. 1933).

[xii] Nasr, S.H. (1973) Islamic Art and Spirituality. p. xi

[xiii] Nader Ardalan (b. 1940).

[xiv] Laleh Bakhtiar (b.1938).

[xv] Ardalan, N. and Bakhtiar, L . (1973) Sense of Unity; The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. p. 7

[xvi] John Dewey (1859- 1952).

[xvii] Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.113.

[xviii] Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.108.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #34 | Autumn 2015

دو کاسه

روشنک کیقبادی | فروردین ۱۳۹۴ | نیویورک

در حال حا ضر یک کاسه متعلق به قرن دهم میلادی از ایران درموزه ی هنر متروپولیتن نیویورک مسکن دارد که به احتمال زیاد در سمرقند ساخته شده ولی در نیشابور (در شمال غرب ایران)۱ پیدا شده است. این کاسه که با خوشنویسی تزیین شده نوشته ای به خط کوفی شرقی۲ برویش دارد که آرزوی “برکت, کامیابی, حسن نیت, صلح و خوشبختی”۳ برای صاحب و استفاده کننده خود می کند

دو سال پیش در شهر فارگو درداکوتای شمالی (در شما ل مرکزی ایالات متحده امریکا) یک کاسه به دست سفالگری به نام مایکل سترند۴ ساخته شد که جزو پروژه ای به نام “کاسه های پیرامون شهر” بود. این کاسه در یک جعبه ی چوبی که مخصوص ان درست شده بود همراه یک دوربین ویدئو و یک دفتر برای نوشتن دستورغذا قرار داده شد و بین افراد دست به دست به گردش درآمد. درطول چند سال آینده مردم این کاسه را قرض خواهند گرفت و کاسه هرغذایی که هر فردی درست کند درخود جای خواهد داد ,از دوربین ویدئو برای ثبت روند کار و دستور غذاها استفاده می شود و خاطرات و داستانهای مرتبط به هرغذا دردفتر یادداشت خواهند شد. “کاسه های پیرامون شهر“ قسمتی از طرح “سهیم شدن+استفاده” بود که ” کارهای معاصر و پروژه ها یی را به نمایش می گذا شت که روند ساختن ,استفاده و زندگی با کاسه ها را بررسی می کرد .”۵

با اینکه این دو کاسه مربوط به دو فرهنگ و عصر متفاوت هستند ولی از چند جنبه به یکدیگر شباهت دارند. هر دو کاسه سفالی هستند و کارشان را که نگه داشتن غذاست انجام می دهند. این دو ابزاری برای ارتباط با استفاده کننده های خودشان هم هستند — نوشته های روی کاسه ای که از ایران است پیامهای مثبتی چون سلامتی و خوشبختی را انتقال می دهد و کاسه ای که از فارگو است وسیله ای برای فراخواندن وانتقال داستان هاست .

ارتباط باهردو کاسه از ابتدا ساخته شدنشان وهربارکه استفاده شده اند یا می شوند یک کوشش گروهی است. همانطور که متخصص تاریخ هنر شیلا بلر۶ می گوید یک گروه هنرمند ماهرکاسه هایی مثل این کاسه که از ایران است را می ساختند. این جمع شامل صاحبان/مدیران ,افرادی که خاک رس و گل را آماده میکردند ,سفالگران ,لعآب کاران و همینطور خوشنویسان و نقاشان تزیینات داخل و خارج کاسه بودند. با اینکه کاسه ای که از فارگو است را یک نفر ساخته بااینحال یک گروه به او کمک کرده اند که شامل انجمن ها ,دسته ها ,خانواده ها ,مراکز آتش نشانی ,کتابخانه های عمومی وهر کسی که میزبان کاسه بوده می باشند. ۷

ولی آیا هیچ ارتباطی بین شکل و کاربرد این دو کاسه وجود دارد و آیا این دو دارای هیچ ارزش زیبایی شناختی هستند؟ مباحثه درمورد شکل و کاربرد در هنر غالبا اشاره به لویز سولیوان۸ آرشیتکت دارد و گفته معروف او درمورد پیروی شکل از کاربرد. سولیوان عقیده داشت که هدف یک ساختمان شکل ان را تعیین می کند . فرنک لوید رایت۹ درادامه طرز فکر سولیوان اندیشه ی “معماری ارگانیک” را مطرح کرد که عقیده به ایجاد رابطه نزدیک بین انسان و طبیعت از طریق طراحی فضاها و مکان های یکپارچه داشت. والتر گروپیوس۱۰ که مدرسه هنر آلمانی باوهاوس را در ۱۹۱۹ تاسیس کرد و یکی از پیشگامان معماری مدرن بود عقیده به “معماری کلی وتام” و “هنر تام” داشت که در ان اشکال مختلف هنر با یکدیگر ادغام میشوند تا یک تجربه واحد پدید بیاورند.

فیلسوف ایرانی سید حسین نصر۱۱ بر این عقیده است که معماری و هنر اسلامی اشکال و کیفیت های افضل دارند . نصر میگوید :”انسان ها در شکل زندگی می کنند, برای این که به سمت افضل کشیده شو ند باید با اشکالی که الگو ی افضل را منعکس می کنند احاطه شوند”.۱۲ همینطور نادر اردلان۱۳ و لاله بختیار۱۴ توضیح می دهند که کاربرد هنر سنتی ایران رسیدن به وحدت زیبایی شناختی و معنوی است. آنها عقیده دارند که : “هنرمند سنتی شکل هنر بیرونی را در پرتو روح و معنی خلق می کند؛ از این طریق شکل هنری توانایی این را دارد که انسان را به مراتب بالاتر وجود و در نهایت به وحدت برساند .”۱۵

شکل , رنگ ,خط های ارگانیک , تزئینات و خوشنویسی بروی یک کاسه و تناسبات ,شکل ,بافت و لعاب در کاسه دیگر نه تنها هر یک از این دو را زیبا و پیچیده کرده اند بلکه تجربه های زیبا شناختی منحصر به فردی را برای سازنده ,استفاده کننده و بیننده فراهم می کنند . همانطور که جان دیویی۱۶ فیلسوف و اصلاح طلب اموزشی اشاره می کند: ” یک اثر هنری هر بار که از طریق زیبایی شناختی تجربه می شود دوباره خلق می شود.”۱۷ دیویی عقیده به طبیعت دگرگون کننده تجربه زیباشناختی دارد و می گوید: ” هنر پرده ای را که بیان گری چیزهای تجربه شده را پنهان کرده کنار میزند. به ما در مقابل رخوت روزمره گی نیرو می دهد و ما را قادر می سازد که خود را فراموش کنیم و خودمان را در شوق تجربه کردن دنیای پیرامون خود با کیفیت ها و شکل های متفاوتش پیدا کنیم . هنر انواع تجلیات یک شیء را تفسیر میکند و به یک تجربه جدید در زندگی تبدیل میک ند .از ان جائی که اشیاء هنری بیانگر هستند ,ارتباط برقرارمی کنند.” ۱۸

سازنده گان کاسه ای که از ایران است ظرفی گویا خلق کرده اند که با کلمات ارتباط برقرار می کند و تجربه غذا خوردن را برای استفاده کننده اش دگرگون می کند. وقتی که در این کاسه غذا خورده می شود و به تدریج کلمات آشکار می شوند یک کا سه معمولی تبدیل به چیزی زیبا و قابل تعمق می شود یعنی طبق نظریه اسلامی معنا را از طریق صورت آشکار می کند .

سازنده کاسه فآرگو مایکل سترند توضیح می دهد که کار هنری و ماموریت او به وجود آوردن اشیا یی (فنجان و کاسه) است که کاربرد ابزاری برای ارتباط دیداری ,گفتاری و انسانی دارند . او میگوید: “من اشیا یی می سازم که ورای دیوارهای موزه یا محدوده گالری می روند .بدون این محدودیت من سعی می کنم که بین مردم پل هایی از تجربه های مشترک با اشیا کاربردی و اندیشه درست کنم . ارتباط محتوای من است . کار از طریق همکاری روند کار من است. رابطه انسانی از طریق هنر, صنعت و طراحی ماموریت من است .”

در نهایت اگر چه کاسه از ایران و کاسه از فارگو کاربرد عملی دارند آنها اشیایی هنری هستند و برعکس. و مهمتر این که کاربرد این دو کاسه این است که “اشیا پرس و جو” هستند , بیان گرند و آماده تجربه های زیبا شناختی جدید و معاصر. این دو کاسه پلی ساخته اند بین سازنده و استفاده کننده, گذشته و حال, معنی و شکل ,شکل و کاربرد.

:پا نوشت ها

۱. در قرن دهم میلادی نیشابور و سمرقند جزو حکومت سامانی بودند

۲. “خط کوفی شرقی در حال حاضر به نام خط سبک نو شناخته میشود که خطی است متعلق به شرق جهان اسلام.” مریم اختیار-۲۰۱۵

۳.”Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]” (40.170.15) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/40.170.15. (July 2011)

۴. Michael Strand (b. 1970)

۵. طرح “سهیم شدن+استفاده” و کاسه های پیرامون شهر اجزا یک نمایشگاه بزرگتر به نام تمرکزروی شی بودند که نمیتا گوپتا ویگر در موزه هنر معاصر پورتلند هماهنگ کرده بود
Object Focus: The Bowl: March 07, 2013 – September 21, 2013. Engage+Use: May 16 – September 21, 2013.

۶.Sheila Blair (b. 1948)

۷. Blair, S. (2013) Text and Image in Medieval Persian Art. Chapter 2: The Art of Writing:A Bowl from Samarqand. P. 13

۸. Louis Sullivan (1864-1924)

۹. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

۱۰. Walter Gropius (1883-1969)

۱۱. Seyyed Hossien Nasr (b. 1933)

۱۲. Nasr, S.H. (1973) Islamic Art and Spirituality. p. xi

۱۳. Nader Ardalan (b. 1940)

۱۴. Laleh Bakhtiar (b.1938)

۱۵. Ardalan, N. and Bakhtiar, L . (1973) Sense of Unity; The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. p. 7

۱۶. John Dewey (1859- 1952)

۱۷. Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.113

۱۸. Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. p.108

تصویر ها :

کاسه. اواخر قرن ١٠ تا ۱۱,ایران , نیشابور؛ ازبکستان امروزی ,احتمالا سمرقند. سفال. موزه هنر متروپولیتن
, نیو یورک, ایالات متحده امریکا. ۳۵.۶ سانتیمتر در ۱۰.۸ سانتیمتر.

کاسه. ٢٠١٣.ایالات متحده امریکا. فارگو, داکوتای شمالی. سرامیک. ساخته مایکل سترند جزو پروژه کاسه های پیرامون شهر. ۳۶ سانتیمتر در ۱۴ سانتیمتر.

. این متن در مجله نشان ( شماره ۳۴) ویژه‌ی کارکرد و طراحی به چاپ رسیده است
.چاپ وتکثیر این متن به هرشکلی بدون اجازه روشنک کیقبادی ممنوع است  © 

NESHAN 34: Design and Function | Autumn 2015 Overview: Two Bowls, Roshanak Keyghobadi

Editorial column: Different Shapes of Graphic Design, Ali Rashidi
Opinion: Design and Performance, Nejdeh Hovanesian
Iranian contemporary design: Studio Shizaru, Ali Afasarpour
Project: Iran’s Museum of Graphic Design, Ehsan Rezvani
Design today: The Poster Diary, Serge Serov
Teschner; The Fragmented Intricacy., Vanina Pinter
Face to face: Udo Schliemann, Reduction, Objectivity, and Humanization, Majid Abbasi
Reference: Rolf Müller; Storyteller, Mark maker, System designer, Jens Müller
Archive: A Modern, Profound and Important Research About the Theatre Workshop (1969 – 1979), Aria Kasaei
Different: From Data to Information to Knowledge Visualization; The Work of Santiago Ortiz, Emily Verba Fischer
Overview: Two Bowls, Roshanak Keyghobadi
Reviews: Pegah Ahmadi & Saed Meshki

نشان ۳۴ ویژه‌ی کارکرد و طراحی
سرمقاله: حرفه‌ی طراحی‌گرافیک، علی رشیدی
نظر: مدیریت دیزاین، نژده هوانسیان
طراحی معاصر ایرانی: استودیو شیزارو، علی افسرپور
پـروژه: موزه‌ی گرافیک ایران، احسان رضوانی
طراحی امروز ۱: پوسترهای روزانه‌، نگاهی به پوسترهای پیتر بانکوف، سرگئی سروف
طراحی امروز ۲: فردریک تشنر: ریزه‌کاری‌های شکننده، وانینا پینتر
رو‌به‌رو: اودو اشلیمان: ساده‌نگاری، عینی‌بودن و انسانی‌بودن، مجید عباسی
مرجع: رولف مولر: قصه‌پرداز، طراح نشانه، طراح سیستم، ینس مولر
آرشیو: پژوهشی نوین و ژرف و سترگ درباره‌ی کارگاه نمایش، آریا کسایی
گوناگون: از داده‌ها تااطلاعات تا دانش تجسمی، امیلی وِربا فیشر
در یک نگاه: دو کاسه، روشنک کیقبادی
کتاب، وب‌سایت و فیلم: پگاه احمدی، ساعد مشکی





What is Contemporary Art?

Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 2015

Is the nature of artistic and aesthetic realization and interpretation of art by the artist and the viewer connected to the time of the artwork’s creation? Is the only criterion for art to be contemporary is being produced at the present time or is contemporaneity a more complex aesthetic state?

Art historian, Terry Smith (2006) in his essay “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity”[i] explains that, “the term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.” The temporal and spatial duality of state and location of contemporaneity testifies to its fluid nature. The common definition of contemporary is, “happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time and marked by characteristics of the present period.” And contemporaneity is “the quality or state of being contemporaneous or contemporary.”[ii] This definition suggests a lively, dynamic and vibrant state of becoming and happening.

Smith (2006) also adds, “Contemporaneity consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them. He explains that the “acts of artists and the organizations that sustain them” produce the answer to what constitutes contemporary art.”

Another definition suggests that “Contemporary art is the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organizing principle, ideology, or ‘ism.’ Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.“[iii]

In regard to contemporary Iranian art, art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan (2011) in his essay “Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran” explains, “contemporary Iranian art, which on the one hand draws heavily on the Euro- American paradigm and, on the other, has selectively adapted existing art forms, is structurally heterogeneous. In the process of this adaptation, like Iranian culture as a whole, it has incorporated elements of Euro-American contemporary art while seeking to create the phenomenon of a localized contemporaneity. This alternative context of contemporaneity is obviously a response to canonical discourses and ideally, in turn, inscribes new discursive formations in the contemporary era. It was most probably by the 1990s that Iranian art witnessed a gradual change, departing from the frame of the newly emerging, post- revolutionary artistic Modernism, and incorporating new viewpoints of existing actualities. As with contemporaneity, the impetus for this came, in part, from the international arena and also from circumstances within, where the need to register reality in a transitional era in all its shifting forms became compelling.” [iv]

[i] Smith, T. (2006) Contemporary art and contemporaneity. Critical Inquiry, 32. Retrieved from: http://arts.rpi.edu/century/eao11/contemporary-terrysmith.pdf

[ii] Merriam-Webster.com

[iii] New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

[iv] Keshmirshekan, H. (2011). Contemporary or specific: the dichotomous desires in the art of early twenty-first century Iran. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 4, (1), pp. 44-71.

Artwork by Nazgol Ansarnia

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Unveiling of the ugly by the beautiful

Roshanak Keyghobadi | February 2015

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it relative or absolute? Is it a quality that only higher beings posses and humans are incapable of comprehending? Is it sublime? Is it pleasurable? Is it sentimental? Is it just? Is it moral? Is beauty related to the type of experiences that we have in relationship to an object, person, place or time, etc.? For example “beautiful” has varied meanings for each of us. Sunset may be breathtaking and beautiful to those who have experienced joy and pleasure viewing it (walking with a loved one at sunset) or unbearable and not beautiful to those who have experienced sorrow and pain viewing it (burying a loved one at sunset).

Even in the ugliest reality, beauty bubbles up spontaneously is the title of an essay by John Rockwell.[i] Rockwell writes about the movie Girl with the Pearl Earring[ii] and how he found it absolutely beautiful and perfect although it was just a series of pretty pictures. This movie brings Rockwell’s attention to the subject of beauty in film and in the arts. He mentions Cappola’s Lost in Translation[iii] and also Antonioni’s Red Desert[iv]. Then he describes an Afghan movie named Osama[v] and summarizes it as such: “a girl disguises herself as a boy named Osama to support her female family in the harsh years of the Taliban (all the men have been killed fighting.) Eventually she is exposed, and her punishment, dispatch into sexual slavery to lecherous imam with a harem.” Rockwell acknowledges that although the story is cruel, harsh and with no happy ending it is rich with breathtaking images and states that “we need beauty; it doesn’t so much distract us from horror as counterbalance it.” In response to Rockwell one can ask whether beauty can be used not a distraction but as a “tool”? For example in Osama beauty becomes a tool, which leads us to the ugliness in the life of a helpless child trapped in a hopeless situation. When watching Osama the “beautiful” striking pictures demand the viewers’ attention and in a strange way the beautiful leads to the ugly. It unveils Osama’s reality and transfers her horror, extreme emotional pain and sorrow to the viewer. One can feel her desperate state of being trapped like a sparrow in a constantly shrinking cage.

Also Arthur Danto in his essay Beauty and Morality[vi] states that beauty can transform grief to “tranquil sadness” and pain into “muted pleasure.” In the same essay Danto states that beauty has a way to “touch the heart”. He discusses Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial’s[vii] beauty of concept, color and form and how it “folds together in an angelic embrace” the dead and the living. Danto mentions that the site of all the names of American soldiers written on the wall denotes them and brings tears to visitor’s eyes. He compares Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to Chris Burden’s The Other Vietnam Memorial.[viii] Burden’s piece bears the name of the fallen Vietnamese and Danto remarks “The difficulty with Chris Burden’s piece is that it merely reminds us the enemy died as well, without in any interesting way acting upon our hearts. His work is not beautiful, and in fact, it is difficult to say what aesthetic qualities it has. It, in any case, does not touch the heart. It consists of several wings attached, like those of a bulletin board, to a central pole. Each one hold a sheet of metal on which are etched, in letters too tiny to read without glasses, the names of Vietnamese.”

Does beauty work as a device which can lead us to more beauty, or to the ugliness, or maybe all the other gray areas in between beauty and ugliness. In my view beauty in art can unveil the ugly and has transformative qualities. It can touch the viewers’ hearts and become a tool for reflection, contemplation and healing. As Somerset Maugham states: “beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his [her] soul. And when he [she] has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he [she] sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.”[ix]

[i] Rockwell, J. (2004) The New York Times. Friday, August 20, 2004.

[ii] Webber, P. (2003) Girl with the Pearl Earring. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIcrCFh0aM8

[iii] Coppola, S. (2003) Lost in Translation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU0oZsqeG_s[iv] Antonioni, M. (1964) Red Desert.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uVPQG01JHk[v] Barmak, S. (2003) Osama.


[vi] Danto, A. (1998) Beauty and Morality, In Beckley, B., & Shapiro, D., Uncontrollable Beauty, Towards a New Aesthetics, p. 25-37. New York, Allworth press.

[vii] Lin, M. (1982) Vietnam Veterans Memorial. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial

[viii] Burden, C. (1991) The Other Vietnam Memorial. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1992-06-26/features/1992178135_1_vietnamese-names-rolodex-lannan-foundation

[ix] Somerset Maugham, W. (1919) The Moon and Sixpence.

Image: Marina Golbahari (b. 1990) as Osama in the movie Osama.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.