Art challenges life

Artists, designers, curators and critics might have difficulty writing about art were it not for the useful word “challenge.” So fashion designer “Walter Van Beirendonck has continued to challenge conventional fashion trends with his distinctive vision” (link). Here are some other obvious examples.

Life-size male mannequin wearing a costume as if a manga superhero“Banksy challenges British cultural identity with warped, twisted versions of British icons” (link).

For Tracey Emin, “My Bed challenges the sexist attitude that makes a disordered bedroom much more shameful for a woman than a man.” (link)

Wheelchair artist Sue Austin’s underwater dances open up “profound issues about methods of self-representation and the power of self-narration in challenging the nexus of power and control that created the ‘disabled’ as other” (link).

Unbuilt avant-garde paper architecture also presents challenges and provocations. In his criticism of the designs emerging from architecture schools, and that win RIBA awards, Patrik Schumacher lamented that the student designs, and attendant films, digital animations and narratives are “provocation at best,” but “are not designs of spaces intended to frame social life.” Rather, they are merely “narratives and messages pushed by evocative imagery” (link). There’s confusion here about what art and design is for. For me there are three main relationships between cultural products and their audiences.

  1. Such designs and works of art can provide models: this is how things should be. Emulate this.
  2. They can set themselves in conflict with the way things are. Be disturbed by this.
  3. They disclose the way things are. Use this as a tool to reveal something about the world.

1. Emulate this

Many artefacts function as models, as exemplars, and as prototypes. The artworks I’ve described act as models in suggesting that we all ought to feel free to plunder manga and pop-culture icons in our clothing, artwork and architecture, to take icons of Britishness less seriously, or people (women) needn’t be ashamed to expose their private lives to others (via their unmade beds), and people branded as ‘disabled’ should feel they can take charge of their assistive technologies and be creative with them.

Modernist architecture of the International variety was intent of delivering ideas about the way things should be, and encouraged emulation. There’s architecture that aims to provide appropriate and sensitive social and technological responses and solutions, and is of the kind that is intent on framing social life responsibly and effectively. Emulate that.

Emulation is too obvious as a sole motivation for art, and provides easy traps for would-be critics. It’s easy to criticise something on the grounds that we really wouldn’t want all our architecture or art to be like that. I don’t suppose Beirendonck intends us to emulate his fashions as everyday work wear.

2. Be disturbed

But not all cultural products are there to be emulated. Disaster movies and crime fiction provide audiences with the frisson of terror, and expose them to shocks that they would not want emulated in everyday life. It’s fair to say that Beirendonck’s fashion and Banksy’s graffiti art set up similar conflicts, and disturb people. Emin’s bed verges on the disgusting, and seeing Austin strapped to aqualung and a wheelchair under water makes some people feel queasy at least.

The award winning student architecture that bothers Schumacher has something of this disturbing element, not least offending architectural and institutional sensibilities: using films instead of drawings, grey dystopian futures instead of optimistic framings of sociable life, refugee robots fighting in the dingy streets of Brixton, facilities for monitoring the growth of algae, storage facilities for people’s memories, buildings that get played by the wind, etc. This is challenging stuff, but is the stuff of challenge enough?

3. Disclosure

I think the role of such works to disclose provides a more interesting, potent and widely applicable set of ideas than just emulating and challenging. Here, a cultural product introduces itself as an alien element into the everyday world, and that acts to reveal something about the world, perhaps some feature that was there all along, but revealed in a new way.

Life-size male mannequin wearing large, yellow plastic headphones and a brown jumper with W and a tank on itIt renders the familiar strange, bringing the everyday into sharp relief. It may also influence, nuance or even create what we think the world is like.

So a cosy woollen jumper with a tank on it shows how wedded we consumers are to safe patterns and imagery. Or Banksy’s wall stencil depicting a street rioter throwing flowers, a little girl in a red dress frisking a soldier, and a grenadier guard relieving himself on a brick wall each reveal something about the close relationship between illegality and cultural approval, nefarious acts and culturally sanctioned vandalism (as art), or something about the law, art, walls, public and private space, humour and agency.

An unmade bed in an art gallery reveals the artistry in chance arrangements of ordinary things. Seeing a wheelchair user on video under water reveals my own sense of control or lack of it, my own mobility, fear of drowning, etc. These might be aspects of ordinary life I’d just not thought about before.

What precisely is disclosed about everyday life by such cultural products, and to whom? Here interpretation comes into play. The effects of such interventions becomes the subject of reflection, analysis, argument and discussion.

Design interventions

I’ve always favoured disclosure (number 3) as a way of understanding the role of cultural products such as buildings, drawings of buildings, films, artworks, and even technological devices. I think it accords more with Martin Heidegger’s concepts of the disclosive nature of the work of art. More importantly, it’s a useful way of thinking about architectural design as a process.

Here the artwork or speculative project reveals something about the world that is independent of the particular cultural intervention. For a designer or architect such interventions provide a very useful way of disclosing everyday practices (ie what people do ordinarily), which helps us understand the world better and differently, and hence can lead designers along the path to better, or different, design. If they are not there yet, outrageous, speculative design propositions are on the way to the design of successful “spaces intended to frame social life,” because of what they reveal about social life, often through contrast. It’s about imagination after all.

Crystalline foyer with stairs and mezanines Grey four-storey concrete interior with coal hoppers projecting from ceiling


  • Coyne, Richard. 1994. Heidegger and virtual reality: The implications of Heidegger’s thinking for computer representations. Leonardo, (27) 1, 65-73.
  • Coyne, Richard. 2005. The digital uncanny. In P. Turner, and E. Davenport (eds.), Spaces, Spatiality and Technology: 5-18. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Coyne, Richard, Hoon Park, and Dorian Wiszniewski. 2000. Design devices: what they reveal and conceal. Kritische Berichte: Zeitschrift für Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften, (3)55-69.
  • Coyne, Richard, Hoon Park, and Dorian Wiszniewski. 2002. Design devices: digital drawing and the pursuit of difference. Design Studies, (23) 3, 263-286.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Trans. J. Macquarrie, and E. Robinson. London: SCM Press. pp.261-263.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1971. The origin of the work of art. Poetry, Language, Thought: 15-87. New York: Harper and Rowe.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. W. Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Schumacher, Patrik. 2012. Schumacher slams British architectural Education. The Architectural Review, (31 January) Link.


  • Heidegger explores the issue of disclosure in Being and Time (pp.261-263), as an issue of truth (aletheia ἀλήθεια). In The Question Concerning Technology he writes about the way technologies reveal something about the context in which they are situated. Some technologies are seen by Heidegger as enabling: fitting into a new and emerging pattern of human practices and revealing something about the environment in which they are situated. He presents the example of a bridge in relation to a river. The bridge reveals the banks and the character of the river through the way in which the bridge is reflected in the water and the way the pylons have to be built to withstand the river’s flow.
  • Also see work on the idea of objects as cultural probes.
  • See blog post Design-led research.
  • Also see Heidegger on technology, Computer images and realism, What buildings want, and Inconspicuous architecture.
  • Also see Tracey Emin’s page at (added 22 June 2015)

Life-size female mannequin wearing a blue ziggurat dress and floral headgear


  1. RachelF says:

    I totally agree with the title of this post! This also relates to the theory of creativity. I think that creative ideas originate from everyday life; artists will successfully translate those ideas into more abstract pieces. Tracey Emin’s “my Bed” begins with a very simple idea and everyone will be able to relate to it in some way and that makes it effective. She successfully converted the idea into a more complex one that makes people stop and think.

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