Book of Kells: Art or Design?
At first glance, some of the images seen in the Book of Kells appear to have more of an architectural quality than an artistic quality, leading the work to be perceived as design over art. The attention to detail in the many different patterns and shapes strongly helps in relaying that aspect. The message this work offers doesn’t appear to try and conjure up an emotional response from its viewer. It was more or less intended to serve some kind of technological purpose. Considering that the Book of Kells origin was during a time when art was almost non-existent (800 AD), leads me to believe that it was never meant to be perceived as art.
Art, in my opinion, is inspired by emotion and in turn evokes emotion. The early works represented in the Book of Kells do not exemplify what art is perceived to be. In its historical context, art by definition, is described as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. So yes, technically because the Book of Kells was an original creation by man, it falls under the category of being a work of “art”.
However, it is my belief that the work displayed in the Book of Kells was never intended to be appreciated for its “beauty or emotional power”. Looking through some of the work, it’s hard to find even a hint of emotion in the works. The main focus in most of the imagery is centered around the crafting of the squares, rectangles, pillars and columns which makes it difficult to relate to on an emotional level. The only reason it’s fair to question whether or not it’s art is due to the portraits of men angels and even animals seen in the midst of all its configurated glory. Even the paintings that are more concentrated on depicting people (John the Evangelist, the Virgin and Child, Christ on his throne) are closer to being habitual biblical works than works of emotionally inspired art. At its core, the Book of Kells is a work of experimental design that was originally way ahead of its time.
In conclusion, I still can only view the Book of Kells to be a work of design. Perhaps if the work wasn’t so focused on its architectural scale and biblical figures, I’d be able to see it differently. But the Book of Kells falls too short in its efforts to evoke emotion to be recognized as art. Just the fact that the Book of Kells serves a specific purpose should tell you that it is not art. The sole purpose behind the Book of Kells was to promote Catholocism, and when you think about the purpose behind the book, it reveals itself as a piece of design. All interpretations of art come from the idea of design, in the end it can be whatever you make of it.