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Book of Kells-Art or Design?

Ashley Dethlefsen

October 1, 2009

From cave paintings of early man to today’s designers, art & design has outstandingly formed the world around us, each in its own different ways. During the eighth century a masterpiece called The Book of Kells of medieval Celtic art was designed. In today’s society do we, as viewers, look at the Book of Kells as art or design? Art is anything that evokes an emotional response while design is something that deserves a purpose. Therefore if an artist creates a piece of artwork and that art has a meaning behind it then is considered to be design, which has a purpose behind it. “Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it, Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtly, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid that you might say that all this was the work of an angel and not of a man” (Long Island University). The Book of Kells is a form of art that was made with a purpose behind it, therefore it should be known as a design.

The Book of Kells is a famous manuscript written on vellum, also known as calfskin. The manuscript contained stories of the four gospels written in Latin with extravagantly illustrations and designs. This book was known for its “pictures, interlaced shapes and ornamental details” ( In the Book of Kells “Many of the letters are strongly reminiscent of modern Irish script; some are curiously distorted and elongated in order to fill out a line or to make a distinctive tailpiece” (The Book of Kells, G.O. Simms). Even though the illustrations may have been a form of art, they are still a part of design that someone came up with to put the imagery on vellum. The ink in the Book of Kells was a pen made out of a reed or a feather of some type of bird. “Ink was made out of the juices of plants, leaves, and roots” (Exploring the Book of Kells) that were placed into the feather pen.

In philosophy, “Hume and Kant agree on a number of doctrines concerning art. Both oppose moral didacticism or the use of art to promote sectarian moral and religious doctrines. Both emphasize that fine art displays genius. Neither believes that the value of an artwork can be inferred from general principles or from intellectual knowledge of what beauty is” (Gracyk).  Kant’s theory is more based on the art and where beauty lies when Hume believes that art is design because it has a purpose. Both men believed that some works of art really are better than others, and that some people have better taste.

Immanuel Kant thinks beauty comes within “art” but is also followed by form of design, which is the purpose. “Kant holds that we can hardly avoid recognizing when something is art, and that it therefore demands evaluation as a thing of a certain kind (as a poem rather than a statue). Reducing art to a mere display of beautiful form would suggest that a work’s content is a superfluous addition” (Gracyk). He focused on the natural beauty of something in this case he says, “this rose is beautiful.” According to the Book of Kells the book can be well thought-out a form of art based on Kant’s theory.

David Hume, who is an eighteenth century philosopher, dealt with morality, art and taste. According to David Hume’s theory on the taste and the arts you can’t be wrong about a response about art. “Art is only the under-workman, and is employed to give a few strokes of embellishment to those pieces, which come from the hand of the master. Art may make a suit of clothes; but nature must produce a man” (David Hume). Here he talks about how a piece of artwork can be created but the only way it can be created is if design comes along. Here the nature is the design, which will then form the suit of clothes, which is the beauty of art. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty” (David Hume). Here David mentions about Beauty and as a piece of design. According to Kant’s “this rose is beautiful,” he talks about the art but in Hume’s case the rose comes from a plant which then makes it grow to become a piece of beauty.

Most people would mistaken the Book of Kells as a work of art, but when you think about the purpose behind the book it makes it become a piece of design. If design is something that has a purpose, then art, which evokes an emotional response, is known as design.

Works Cited:

Simms, George Otto. Exploring the Book of Kells. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1988 Special Collections Department. B.Davis Schwartz Memorial Library. C.W. Post Campus.

Gracyk, Thomas. “Philosophy of Art: Hume and Kant: Summary and Comparison.” 2002. Web. Sept 2009.

Simms, George Otto. The Book of Kells. Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1968

Hume, David. The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Boston: Little, Brown and Company


5 responses »

  1. Responing to the last line of your paper,If design is somthing that has a purpose, then art ,which evoles an emotional response is known as design. Good point of view. For me i think the book of kells has elements of both art and design. Eileen

  2. Great stuff. This is a big discussion really without an answer. It is meant to improve your analytical and rhetoric skills. It is unanswerable – no right or wrong answer. However I side with design personally. i believe everything is designed first then it is used for its intended purpose. I believe in utilitarianism versus spirituality. I do not believe that someone is going to swoop down and save me Popeye!!! I believe we are all given the same tools so to speak and we need to use them. Stephen Hawkins.
    Could anybody have it tougher? To be that brilliant and not be able to speak easily?
    I will send grade with email. Good job. Hope it is interesting.

  3. I agree that when you get down to the bottom of it its clearly design, but there is no denying the artistic aspects of it too.

  4. Good paper. I agree that it is both, because art is design, and it holds qualities of both.

  5. I already thought that the Book of Kells should be considered design, but you brought up some points that I hadn’t considered before. Good use of quotes to back up the facts.


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