The Confusion between Art and Design

Brain-tools versus Body-tools

by Tsion Avital (Holon Institute of Technology, Israel)

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"Since the early decades of the twentieth century art lovers and art historians have realised that something is rotten in the art world. The confusion caused by the rapid succession of many modernist styles in Europe and America was intensified by modernist authoritarians who decided arbitrarily what art is, formulating the slogan that art is what the art world says it is. Tsion Avital rose to the occasion to counteract this fallacy. In his first book, Art versus Nonart (2003) he formulated an extensive theory of mindprints to distinguish art from non-art. He pointed out that the one ancient paradigm of figurative art has run its course, but that its replacement by so-called abstract art is a fallacy because it is neither art nor abstract. In the present publication Avital renews his stance on what art is, but broadens the scope to argue about the manifold differences between art and design. Once again, Avital rises to the occasion to clear up a confusion, as the title of the book clearly indicates: The Confusion between Art and Design. The lucid text is supported by well-chosen illustrations that will hopefully influence readers to differentiate between art and design."

"I admire his courage to change misconceptions about art and design. He is clearly a very original and logical thinker and I hope that the present publication will change conceptions that are detrimental to both art and design."

Estelle Alma Maré, Editor in Chief
The South African Journal of Art History (SAJAH)

"Dr. Avital has been publishing scholarly essays and speaking at conferences for decades on the subject of art versus design. The attempt to isolate the disparate disciplines, if indeed either is a discipline, might be compared to the continuing nature-versus-nurture argument by social scientists. Both have been what-seems-to-to-be-endlessly deliberated. Even though the study of art and of design are theoretical, Dr. Avital has come closer than anyone to approaching them as if they were empirical. His clear and rigorous parsing of the issues in The Confusion Between Art and Design dares disagreement and will do much toward concluding the argument."

Prof. Mel Byars, Design Historian,
author of The Design Encyclopedia

"This book is not just for specialists of art and design. It gives an orientation for finding values, which is essential in the current cultural turmoil of the world. Avital's distinction between body-tools which are tools or extensions of our body, brain-tools which are all symbols systems, and mind-tools which seem to be the most fundamental structuralizing properties of mind, is instructive for considering and solving various problems that we face, including the widespread confusion between art and design. There will be various debates in connection with this book, similar to his earlier work Art versus Nonart (Cambridge, 2003; in Chinese, Beijing, 2009), but there is no development without discussions and then some actions."

Dénes Nagy, President
International Symmetry Society

"Avital’s book is a beam of light into the murkiness and confusion characterizing modern art in general and the relations between art and design in particular. This is no doubt the first book which thoroughly clarifies the numerous differences between art and design, thus reestablishing each as independent cultural domain. Because of this, it is very likely that this book will become an indispensable handbook for art and design education at all levels, and also as an illuminating book for those interested in visual culture at all levels. This book like his previous one “Art versus nonart,” has far reaching implications on our understanding of the nature of culture because it points out its structural properties which are constant beyond space and time.
Most investigators: philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, specialists in cultural studies, etc. – will accept this book with enthusiasm, because of its interdisciplinarity, quite contemporary functional approach, and encyclopedic embracing of the entire Artistic Universe. Moreover, we are waiting impatiently for next books of this inspiring author."

Vladimir Petrov,
Principal Researcher at the State Institute for Art Studies, Moscow;
Professor at the State University of Social Sciences, Moscow;
Honorary Professor at the Perm State Institute of Arts and Culture

In the past century the borders have blurred between art and design. Designers, artists, aestheticians, curators, art and design critics, historians and students all seem confused about these borders. Figurative painting was reduced to graphic design while still being called 'art'. Figurative sculpture was reduced to nonfunctional industrial design while being called 'sculpture'. This fundamental blunder resulted from total misunderstanding of the concept of "abstraction" by the founders of modern art. Comprehensive analysis shows that so-called "abstract art" is neither abstract nor art, but a very simple, even trivial, kind of design.

In this book the prehistoric, philosophical, logical, historic and religious sources of the confusion between art and design are analyzed.
A new and coherent conceptual framework is proposed, to distinguish between art and design. Nearly one hundred distinctions, contradistinctions and comparisons between art and design are presented, showing clearly that they are totally independent domains.

Philosophy of art books are written by philosophers for philosophers, not for artists and designers; therefore they are irrelevant for the latter, especially for students who normally lack the necessary conceptual training. This book is not only for theoreticians but for art and design practitioners at all levels. This is a new kind of book: an illustrated philosophical book for the art and design world, which can make philosophical knowledge accessible and useful for solving real problems for designers and artists who are mostly visual rather than conceptual thinkers. The book contains over two hundred images; thus art and design people can easily follow the arguments and reasoning presented in this book in their own language; images.

Lack of distinction between art and design harms both. Design is contaminated by the ills of modern art, while modern art cannot recover from its current stagnation whilst under the illusion that it is actually art rather than design.



1 Invitation: Can a chair be a sculpture of a chair?

1.1 On the need to do away with fake sacred cows.
1.2 Misunderstanding of abstraction by modernism is the main source of the
confusion between art and design.
1.3 Duchamp's syndrome: Camouflage, disguise and fraudulence in nature
and culture.
1.4 Which art versus which design
1.5 Can a chair be a sculpture of a chair?

2 The human tool kit: Body-tools, Brain-tools, Mind-tools

2.1 Body-tools: First order reality- Phenomenal reality.
2.2 Brain-tools: Second order reality- Symbol systems.
2.3 Mind-tools: Third level reality- Structuralism or mind in tools.

3 The roots of confusion between art and design

3.1 The confusion between object and photo.
3.2 In prehistory there was no distinction between art and design.
3.3 The confusion between art and design produced by the Greek concept
"technē" and Plato's metaphysics.
3.4 Scientists in no-man's land: Science inadvertently promotes the confusion
between art and design.
3.5 The confusion between art and design in mathematical art.
3.6 A whirlpool of confusions between art and design: Self-deceit and
eyewash by academia, museums and some parasites on art.
3.7 Tools as art?
3.8 "Painting": A linguistic trap.

4 Art versus design: A horde of contradistinctions

4.1 There is natural design but no natural art.
4.2 Art versus design: some basic distinctions.
4.3 Art versus design: symbol versus object
4.4 Art versus design: systemic versus discrete entities.
4.5 Art versus design: paradigms versus styles
4.6 Art versus virtual design.
4.7 Complementary aspects between art and design

5 If it is holy it is not art. If it is art it is not holy:
The confusion between icon, art, and design in religious art.

5.1 Art and iconoclasm are incompatible.
5.2 Art, design and iconoclasm in Judaism.
5.3 Art, design and iconoclasm in Christianity
5.4 Art, design and iconoclasm in Islam

List of illustrations



Tsion Avital is perhaps the most original and revolutionary thinker in the field of philosophy of art today. Even at the start in his Master’s thesis (1970) and his doctorate (1974) he claimed that modern art is not a new paradigm in art, but the debris of figurative art and thus is not a substitute for it. He claimed that over tens of thousands of years figurative art contained two simultaneous layers: a revealed layer which is content related and semantic, which we call figurative art, and a hidden layer which is structural, and whose principal component is the hierarchic structure of every figurative painting without exception. In order to create a new paradigm for art, he suggested turning around and creating an artistic paradigm that would be based on representation of the structural characteristics of the mind, and neglecting the semantic layer which in any case has been exhausted. In the 1970’s modern art was at its peak and so there was no chance for a new paradigm of art, just as there is no point in proposing medication to a sick person who does not realize he is sick. At the same time there was no theory in aesthetics that could clearly explain the differences between art and non-art, and so Avital was obliged to create it. After about twenty years of searching he discovered the Mindprints theory – his conjecture as to the most basic organizational structures of the mind. He has presented this theory in a number of articles, in lectures at conferences and primarily in his book – Art versus nonart: Art out of mind (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Modernism, abstraction, Cultural anthropology, contemporary art criticism, falseness of modern art, Kantian philosophy, Aesthetics, symbol-systems, The fallacy of affirming the consequence, camouflage, disguise, fraudulence, representation, reference, self-reference, incompleteness, sign versus symbol, object versus symbol, object versus photo, hierarchy, systemic, phenomenal reality, structuralism, Plato's Metaphysics, tèchne, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Mathematical art, tools as art, systemic versus discrete, network structure, paradigm, style, complementarity between art and design, iconoclasm, Jewish art, Jewish design, Christian art, Islamic art, image as substitute for object, Monet, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, Pollock, Rembrandt, Soulages, Rodin, Caro, Michelangelo, Philippe Starck, Stella, Duchamp, Armand, Magritte, Roberto Sambonet, Anish Kapoor, Oldenburg, Merle, Leonardo da Vinci, van Baburen, van Meergeren, Tintoretto, Vermeer, Holbein, Munch, prehistory, prehistoric tools, prehistoric art, prehistoric design, prehistoric figurines, levels of reality, inclusion relations, exclusion relations, connectivity, disconnectivity, symmetry, asymmetry, randomness, connectors, containers, processors, dissectors, inner space, grouping, class, classification, extension of hand, extension of skin, extension of inner space, fashion, architecture, industrial design, graphic design, visual communication, code and fashion, hand tools, body tools, brain tools, mind tools, open endedness, closed endedness, recursion, recurrence, singularity, mutual exclusiveness, determinism, indeterminism, natural design, animal art, embedding , self-embedding, metaphor, holon, holonomic, serial, serial order, virtual design, terra-cotta army at Xian, Jizo statues, tiling

See also

Bibliographic Information

Book Title

The Confusion between Art and Design

Book Subtitle

Brain-tools versus Body-tools





Number of pages


Physical size

251mm x 178mm


14 B&W and 202 Color

Publication date

June 2017