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
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
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?