Dec 10, 2016

Form over Function = Art

ktm-610-supermoto-hmc-redbull-factory-race-bike_3I take a fair amount of crap over my dislike for motorcycles with “personality” and intolerance for form over function (choppers and other non-functional toys). For starters, I’m not particularly visual: ask me what my favorite color is and the answer will be “Who cares?” There are a few colors I don’t like, a lot of colors that are acceptable, and a few that I prefer under particular conditions. Likewise, I tend to look at mechanical things as tools and tools are either useful or not. If they are really useful, I don’t care what they look like at all. Or, at least, I put the cosemetic aspect so far in the background I only think about it in really rare and slightly drunken moments.

clip_image002My wife is a visual artist. She is very visually oriented and wouldn’t recognize a function if one were staring her in the face. The function of plastic bags evades her, or (like me and colors) she doesn’t care about even basic functions. I buy large bags of bird seed for our outdoor feeders and if she beats me to being first to open a new bag, the bags look like a rabid squirrel chewed its way into the package. This might not seem like a thing to a more normal person, but I have a system for filling the feeders, mostly because I hate squirrels and spillage attracts squirrels. My system is fairly anal, I admit. I cleanly cut the top off of the bag, spread the bag so that it fills the can, stick the feeders all the way into the bag, and fill the feeders with a pitcher so that all of the excess falls back into the bag. She, on the other hand, disassembles the top foot of the bag, pours seed randomly in the container, around the container, and even some into the feeders. Squirrels love her. These bags were actually designed to be containers and a reasonably organized systems of distribution and art turns them into chaos.

So, for 49 years we’ve lived together with disparate interests and conflicting styles. Art, as I define it, comes from an old Greek (or Chinese or Abo) word meaning “not good.” If something is art, the execution will be amateur, the choice and use of materials will be juvenile, and purpose will be obscure or nonexistent. My wife and her artist friends are convinced that I’m too obsessed with purpose and artisanship (an insult, to the art crowd). I’m convinced that if the workmanship sucks, I don’t care about the rest. When I look at a piece of ironwork art, I look at the welds first. If they are amateur, poorly formed, or ground off to hide the poor workmanship, I don’t take the rest of the work seriously. Same for woodworking. I’m looking for a level of workmanship before I start considering the form. As a mediocre musician, I have always required music to be something more complicated than I can perform if I’m going to spend my money on it.  clip_image001

The fact that this motorcycle is unrideable except under the most restricted conditions defines it as art and not a functional vehicle, in my mind. I’m a big fan of engineering, like the KTM at the beginning of this essay and not much of a fan of cobbled and useless art, like this cruiser. I’m not bragging here. I realize that this function-over-form requirement limits my ability to appreciate purely form-based art. I don’t see anything but discomfort, impracticality, and unnecessary complication and expense when I see a bike like this cruiser. I don’t have a mechanism that allows me to appreciate it as art alone.

A designer/author named Don Norman sums up my problems with bad design (art) in his book, The Design of Everyday Things, “Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. Motorcycles, for example, are dangerous, complicated, and non-intuitive (countersteering, for example). Good design would minimize that. Lousy design adds to all of the negatives without providing any value, other than chaos, to the rider. And if you’re not riding your motorcycle, you are not a motorcyclist but an owner of a piece of art.

As Norman said about Apple products in a FastDesign article a while back, “Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them.” Likewise, motorcycles with a primary purpose of “looking pretty” are destroying motorcycling by convincing rube motorcyclists that looking cool (or clownish, depending on your perspective) is more important than going places safely and competently. These toys are so badly designed that they need to make as much noise as possible to compensate for the fact that the riders are helpless to defend themselves with the qualities a decently designed motorcycle and motorcyclist take for granted; agility.

Wow! If I were in a better mood, I’d go back and pare this down to one argument. I’m not in a good mood and probably won’t be for at least 4 years. The worship of ignorance, chaos, and corruption has become a national religion and I don’t expect to enjoy it any more than I like looking at a piece of badly executed “art.”


Scott Seidl said...

I get that you have no use for cruisers. Personally I like anything on two wheels. The problem I have with this post is you claim the KTM is more functional than the chopper. What is its function? A dirt bike with street tires that isn't street legal is just a hooligan bike. A bike to have fun on much like the chopper. If its a race bike then its a toy just like the chopper. If the owner of the chopper bought it that way then he is trying to fit an image. If he built it that way then he is expressing himself. Take a closer look and you may find some nice welds that weren't done by a robot. Maybe I'm confusing functionality with practicality in which case both bikes lose.

T.W. Day said...

Two different terms, functionality and practicality. The enduro version of the KTM is super practical, though, and functional. I knew a guy in Colorado who took the art thing seriously and rebuilt Brit classics and installed them in his living room (a really big room, too) on pedestals without a drop of oil anywhere near the "art." I could almost appreciate that.

If I ever starting liking cruisers, you'll have to assume Alzheimer's has taken hold. Everything about them, from the lack of function to the social comment, pisses me off.