Art v. Craft

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Created: 08/27/12
Last Edited: 11/22/12
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A quick essay on a hot topic.
  • Art v. Craft
    David W. Nees 2012

    In a world where everybody gets a medal for participating, it is increasingly difficult to explain the differences between art and craft. A recent art outing to Living Arts of Tulsa caused the perennial question as to the nature of craft and art to be asked again. I want to elaborate my position here not in a vain attempt to protect the status of art, but to illustrate the hazard of naming everything Art.
    Living Arts hosted the Brady Craft Alliance for its invitational exhibit Crafting Ritual and Identity. One particular craftsperson stood out, Anita Fields. Fields is a ceramicist. Her work highlights one of the traditional distinctions between art and craft – material. Ceramics are often products such as teapots, dishes and even porcelain dolls, items that are usually found in the home. Thanks, however, to the work of first-generation feminist artist Judy Chicago and her work the Dinner Party this distinction is now as murky as the Arkansas River.
    Regardless, the result is that material alone is not sufficient to distinguish one type of work from the other. Moreover, Fields’ own personage highlights other related, quick, and repulsive means of determination the first being native heritage and the second being an archaic gender test that almost always disqualified women from being considered as artists. Again, this unfortunate historical fact has fortunately not held true due to the work of Chicago and others.
    So if we cannot determine an object’s nature by virtue of its material, or the heritage or gender of its creator than how do we know what we are looking at and whether it is art or craft or what? The nature of craft is different from art on at least three counts.

    · Craft almost always suffers from the “more is more” philosophy of object/image making. Editing and refinement is essential to the determination.
    · Another true distinction is function. Often an item that has true purpose and is meant to function, it is not seen as art. Art almost never serves a true practical function.
    · The most important distinction – the only one that truly matters – is that based on a variety of criteria (such as the two given) the maker makes his/her object and defines its nature. In a Duchamp-ian way, if you are an artist, you make art. If you are a craftsperson, you make craft.
     
    Notice that there is nothing mentioned about quality of material or prestige of function. A gold chalice is in every way still a cup and the cup of Christ may have been a simple drinking cup out of clay. It is also important to note that although anything may be art (imbued by its creator that identity), it does not mean for everything to be art. Just as wine becomes blood in the hands of a priest, any object may be transformed by the artist – the ordinary made extraordinary. Yet, despite the lofty simile, art (as extraordinary as it may be) is merely art. It is too much to ask for a word to imbue more meaning than that; therefore, it seems important to let art define a type of object/image not the value of that object/image. This leads to an issue that has been avoided for 100+ years – the discernment of value. An art work is something that can be good, bad, valuable, beautiful, ugly, worthwhile or even worthless – and miraculously still be art, but not be worthy of further consideration. Yet it is not only that art must suffer/benefit from critique and criticism, all creative endeavors should be treated the same. Value of workmanship, materials and message are great values to wish for excellence in their expression.
    So finally, it should not be a question of what is art, or what is craft, or what is design. Art is what an artist makes. It is that simple. The real question of the viewer, the critic and the historian should be is it any good?
  • Anita Fields
    Crafting Ritual & Identity, 2012

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