The traditional distinction between the so-called “fine arts” and the “decorative arts” turns on the paradigmatic notion of “purposiveness” as coined by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790). According to Kant, the objects that compose the domain of the decorative arts—ranging from wallpapers to chairs, hooks, and garments—are conceived of by dint of a teleological end. The objects thus satisfy such ends: the wallpaper makes the walls of a barren abode more sensuously interesting, the hook allows for the hanging of hats and clothes, the chair befits sitting, and garments (no matter how visually interesting) serve to protect from the elements. Contra these artisanal objects and the purposive judgments we make about them are the objects of the plastic arts, which, for Kant, are “purposively purposeless.” They thus elicit “disinterested” aesthetic judgments that invite the free play of the imagination with the understanding. Indeed, there are no ends-directed activities when it comes to painting and sculpture, and so Kant’s basic distinction has long remained the received norm.
Nevertheless, philosophers—particularly those descrying critical developments in art history—have duly contested the terms of this division. Arthur Danto famously heralded Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) as opening up the possibility of “mere real things” being enfranchised as art objects. According to Danto, Warhol’s groundbreaking insight had been to show that an art object’s necessary conditions are that it has to be about something (in Warhol’s case, the ontological conditions of what an art object is) and appropriately embody that meaning (a visual counterpart to the packaging of Procter & Gamble’s Brillo pads). Following Danto’s diagnosis in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), art history after Warhol has encroached upon a post-historical breach into the dominion of artistic plurality, the Modernist conceit of reflexive self-investigation (viz. Greenbergian “medium-specificity”) now re-routed. What countenanced an object as a work of art was to be conceptually analyzed by way of art-world theorization. Clearly, the metaphysical status of art objects could not be perceptually determined, since Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were perceptually indiscernible from their real-world counterparts sold in supermarkets. Yet, it is not immediately clear whether, despite the inventiveness with which Danto and his successors, like Noël Carroll, have encroached upon the ontological investigation of art objects, they have been able to upend the Kantian uncoupling—even Warhol’s Brillo Boxes remain purposively purposeless, ultimately unbefitting for the encasing of kitchen pads.
Martino Gamper’s exhibition “I am many moods” (on view through August 11, 2023) proffers a variegated assortment of design objects—chiefly, hooks, chairs, and tables—made up of diverse materials, including glass, ceramic, steel, and wood. A cascade of toothy, upturned hooks—some sharp as daggers and others knotted into knuckled nodules—blankets the walls. This swirling array is occasionally interrupted by chairs, hanging by the hooks. In the center of one space, tables are stacked into a citadel, a monolith that soars up into the atrium. The press release cites the well-known adage that “[f]orm follows function,” the design principle “which suggests that the shape of an object should primarily relate to its intended purpose.” The exhibition lays stake to the claim that this is not as limiting as it may sound. Gamper, an Italian-born designer based in London who has worked with venerated furniture firms like Ercol, does not seek to challenge the hardened Kantian distinction. Instead, he demonstrates in dazzling instances how design choices—like two jointed tree stumps or careening metal grapnel anchors—can serve as hooks precisely due to their teleological form. In presenting a checkered medley of objects collated under the umbrella category “hooks,” Gamper seeks to show the full breadth of family resemblance—a neo-Wittgensteinian lesson in how one overlapping common feature, form, tethers these diverse objects together. It is a testament to his resourcefulness that he never repeats a hook: crystal branches giving way to sanded gavels, each hook equally deserving studied consideration.
Yet, wittingly or not, the exhibition’s most interesting achievement is thoroughly conceptual, anchored in the sum of its individual parts. The collective presentation of hooks, chairs, and tables demonstrates the transfiguration of “mere real things”—albeit, visually and materially inventive “mere real things”—into a sculptural feat. The serviceability of these hooks, chairs, and tables is exorcised, the collection of functional holders molded into a sculptural pattern. This lesson is inherently mereological: the collection of hooks prods our reception of them not as hooks but as a resplendent unified installation. At times, Gamper seems to gesture toward the very intentionality of this act of transfiguration, positioning plucked flowers in the orifices of his whittled, hollowed hooks, turning them into vases; elsewhere, he gives them large, glassy noses incapable of supporting much in the way of trench coats or tote bags. Still, the exhibition is less in the nature of a cheeky antic—i.e., how diverse the linguistic designation of “hook” truly is when held under scrutiny—and more finely attuned to how design objects, when purged of their ends-directed possibilities, can become works of art, proper. In an act of aesthetic alchemy so swiftly conducted as to be barely noticeable, Gamper goads us into marveling at a sea of curiously constructed sculptures. Viewers navigating the two floors of the show find themselves twisting their necks, following arachnean lines dotted by hooks of all sorts. In concert, they resemble a dazzling climbing wall, rising and lapsing like the tide of an ocean. We are far removed from the possibility of hanging hats and coats, taken over instead by that free play of imagination and understanding that Kant so deftly illuminated. The form of the exhibition, with its medley of assorted items, begins to take on an impetus of its own, one utterly unfettered from the function that any individual hook, chair, or table might serve. Consequently, form is deracinated from function, the exhibition all the stronger for having come undone.