Art, Design and How We Learn

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a lot to be learned from visiting art museums - walking their corridors, perusing exhibitions, looking at the varied work on the walls. We know, when we are inside MoMA or the Met or any of the other great museums in this country, that we are experiencing art; no doubt about it. What is less clear to us, perhaps, is that we are also experiencing art when we wander the avenues and alleys, the gardens and parks in our neighborhoods, and when we enter or walk by the buildings around us. In fact, architecture, landscape, the surroundings and objects of everyday life, are as artful as paintings and sculpture. Though we tend to call what is on the walls "art," and the walkways of our day-to-day lives "design," they are really a lot less separable than that.

Experiencing and assessing what is actual and all around us can make us better artists, better art lovers and - most important - better citizens. This way of looking at art and at design came clear to me, for example, this summer when I visited the Queens Museum of Art in the borough of Queens, New York City. The Queens Museum has programs enabling young people and their families to help create and locate art on the streets of Corona, their neighborhood - to use and value the parks, participate in street festivals of food and music, to make art in and about their community. Under the aegis of the museum, but way beyond its walls, the children and their families make creative excursions into their environs, finding art everywhere. The children learn not only to paint and draw their buildings and streets and parks but to enter them, evaluate them, experience them as art. They learn to think about the objects and artifacts of their lives, judging their worth, their beauty or lack of it, their usefulness.

I gained another lesson about design at the Queens Museum. At the time I visited, the Museum was hosting a group of inner-city high school students who were teaching art to children as part of a Studio in a School summer program. (Studio is a non-profit organization that provides art instruction in New York City public schools.) The high school students were interacting with Dorothea Rockburne, a New York artist, as she created inside the museum a 41-foot high painting of the sky, the Milky Way, over the island of Jamaica, as an homage to Colin Powell. The completed work - to be mounted in the United States embassy in Jamaica through FAPE - shows the sky as it was on the night of Powell's birth. Intrigued and stimulated by Rockburne's vision, the students determined to design their own homages to place, to look into space in their own way, drawing on new design techniques and media resources to make their own works. Rockburne tracked the sky in paint; the students flew through cyber space, digitizing images and transferring them by computer, in their parallel initiatives.

First, they looked at Google Maps, and at "Street Views" on Google Maps, to locate specific buildings or boulevards or even benches that they liked in locations around the world. Then they created works of art of their own, photographed them digitally, and - also digitally - synthesized them with the images they had selected from faraway places. Their own works of art, synthesized with these locations, became ways of connecting with other people, other places, other experiences, just as Rockburne's mural connects the U.S. with Jamaica, and a U.S. citizen with the world beyond the U.S.. In the very presence of Rockburne's tribute to Powell, to space, to connectivity, the students designed their versions of her truths. The results are design magic - the students' sculpture appears digitally on an apartment building in Madrid; their paintings show up at a park and on a sidewalk in London and on the sides of houses in Barcelona; a mural glows on the façade of the Forbidden City in Beijing. With these instruments of design, the students achieved - as Rockburne did in paint - new contexts, unexpected connections and cosmopolitan goals. The sky, space itself, became a tool.

This is just one particular instance of the many many ways in which art and design can interact and affect understanding of the world we live in. But I think it demonstrates the spirit of inquiry and the ability to imagine that can grow in young people who are encouraged to really see into their own living spaces and places, and who are encouraged to use the tools and techniques of contemporary design to express their ideas.

There are cultures, and museums, in which art and design quite naturally cohere and from which we can also learn a lot. Textiles and tools in the National Museum of the American Indian, for instance, or the wonderful pots and household objects in New York's Hispanic Society are not singled out into rooms designated for "design." These objects are integral in their cultures and in these collections; they are art in the same way that portraits or landscapes or statues are. In that same spirit, when our children appreciate the contours of a pond or a playground or the arch of a Vaux bridge, or when they despise waste or refuse imperfect merchandise, they are connecting art and the everyday in the best ways.

A new museum space with a provocative name opened in New York last year - the Museum of Arts and Design. In that space, the prevailing concept is precisely that art and design are inseparable, equally meritorious. The opening exhibition, called "Second Lives - Remixing the Ordinary," featured established and emerging visual artists from around the world whose work in this exhibition is made of everyday objects reused, reconstructed, reconnected to reality in their "second lives." The relationships between art and design, between aesthetics and the ordinary, become startlingly clear in these works - a sculpture made of plastic buttons, a portrait of a factory worker "painted" in the labels of the clothing that she sews, a room-sized "quilt" made of cans. The art is "high," and the materials are "low" - spools of thread, spoons and forks, handgun triggers, coins, shoes, milk cartons, teacups, plastic bags are the materials... and the message is inescapable. The everyday is celebrated with wit and wisdom and with a challenge to its viewers - the challenge to creatively see, use and evaluate what is real and around us all the time.

Our museums and our cultural institutions, and our schools, do so much good when they push learning out into public places, when they include design in lesson plans, when they educate children to use their own creative senses and develop their own critical reactions to the world immediately around them. The enchantment of "design" is that it enchants the everyday.