This year on my way to getting my Art Ed. degree… For ARTH370 – Reflection Paper
“You can’t create art with craft […]. Part of the prejudice is because of the beauty of the medium.[…] The tradition of the beautiful object is always in the way.” By François Houdé (1987)
(From: Ann Duncan. « Beyond Craft: Shattering the myth about Glass », The Gazette, (Saturday 22 November, 1987) : section C6.)
I disagree with Houdé’s statement in that I feel art cannot be created without some craftsmanship or skill with a given medium, nor do I feel the innate beauty of that medium will promise the favourable aesthetics of the final piece. Furthermore, I feel his definition inaccurately suggests that the work must be lacking beauty to be considered art. Aesthetics and aesthetic choices are purely subjective and often transient, depending on life experience; it is the transformation and/or innovations made with the medium that dictates what can be considered art.
The inherent beauty of a specific medium doesn’t limit the artists ability to create art with it. For example, I love the colour Cerulean blue and I’ve used it to decorate crafts as well as in the creation of traditional arts. The craft, if interpreted as a traditionally learned and practiced skill, of applying the colour doesn’t necessarily diminish the work’s ability to be defined as art. Since the break with the apprenticeship system that once formed artists and artisans alike and the subsequent move toward personal expression, media used in the act of creation has defined creative objects along the separate lines of function and expression. Function is used to define craft, whereas expression became the property of art. This paper seeks to give a brief overview of the points where art and craft have become divided and where they continue to find themselves intersecting.
What is art?
Aesthetician Noel Caroll gives his scientific formula of art as follows: (Barrett, T., Why is that art?, 2012, p.5)
- “X is a work of art if and only if
- X has a subject
- About which X projects an attitude or point of view
- By means of rhetorical (usually metaphorical) ellipsis
- Which ellipsis requires audience participation to fill in what is missing (interpretation)
- Where both the work and the interpretation require an art-historical context.
Whereas an object created with a craft medium could also submit to these conditions, they are usually differentiated from artworks by their functionality. When they have both functionality and artistry, they are labeled as decorative arts, rather than high art. The possible and real distinctions between arts and crafts are also tied to historical and cultural events. They could be seen as changing according to popular beliefs at any given time.
The Renaissance humanist author, Vasari (c. 1550), published his popular artist biographies that changed the status of master craftsmen to creative masterminds. Allowing their artistic work to be seen differently and inspiring a bias against functional work, and diminishing the mastery of these trades to simple artisan work, regardless of the quality. In the Western world, traditional mastery became secondary to expression when defining art and allowed some media to be used more freely for expression without mastery.
“The distinction between arts and crafts is culturally distinct. Some cultures see their traditional crafts as the highest form of expression and creative skill. It is more a Western and contemporary view that functional art is lesser than innovative art. Innovation has become a Western standard for describing what is higher art.
“If our appreciation of objects and their makers is so conditioned by our culture and history, then art and its definition are truly in the eye of the beholder.” Laura Morelli (Khan Academy, Art History lesson, 2019)
Art is assumed to be directed at visual perception and the mind, whereas crafts are perceived through multiple senses, most commonly touch, and somewhat directed to the heart. Morelli’s lesson (2019) could be distilled to a single, but not simple suggestion that art tells a novel story from a unique perspective and is transformed by the interpretation of the viewer. Whereas, craft relates a long history and inspires some nostalgia in the user by the means of sensory mnemonics.
“Craft has limitations arising from tradition. By nature, craft looks backward… Once that is done, craft can develop its own conceptual approach.” Bruce Metcalf (1993)
What is craft?
In his American Craft article on modernism, Bruce Metcalf (1993) makes some distinctions between arts and crafts through the overview of the Modernist ideology of the time. He postulates that craft methodology is firmly rooted in past traditions. These traditions are also what formed some viewers definitions of beauty. If we apply this to Houdé’s statement that craftwork and the materials used to make it are pleasing to the senses, thus are beautiful, and tie in the very popular Modernist Art Critic, Clement Greenberg’s assertion that art must be ugly, at least at first, to be considered art, then we have the groundwork that further separates crafts from art. However, the social-economic status differentiation between the craftsman and the artist has a more modern anthropological explanation. In the Western world, we find the realities of industrialization and capitalism influencing the relative value of each. If we remove the influence of marketing then we see that relative values are very subjective, which is why they differ widely across the globe.
The 4 Identities of crafts:
- It must be made by hand
- It is medium specific; identified with a material and the technology to manipulate it.
- It is defined by use, disciplines, or groupings of functions. Ie: It is functional.
- It is defined a multicultural history with archaeological or anthropological evidence of the traditional techniques.
Replacing the myth of modernism, Metcalf, Bruce. American Craft; Feb 1993; 53, 1; ProQuest pg. 40
What’s the difference?
Perhaps the key point defining craft is that it is made by hand, but how does the value of materials define art from craft? Morelli (2019) suggest that regardless of materials used, “the arrangement of visual elements – shapes, colours, textures, etc…” define the artistry in the object.
“…almost anything can be used to make art. However, whether media are traditional or non conventional, the visual qualities they produce should become the focus of study… These qualities can be organized to evoke various feelings and meanings for the viewer. …” Morelli (2019)
Crafts focus on the use of traditional materials manipulated in a traditional method with some traditional significance, and with a specific function to the form. Any decorative aspects are a secondary consideration and currently have little institutional validation contributing to their market value. Art seeks to express a significance, novel or temporally relevant, with a traditional or non-traditional use of materials, with a main goal of transforming or elevating the materials beyond any specific purpose. Currently, innovation beyond technique inspires commercial value.
Sure, but is it art?
The previous Metcalf definition could easily be reinterpreted to define works of art as follows: (1) Art is made by hand. If one ignores the tools the hand is holding to manipulate the media, even electronic art is handmade. (2) Art is medium specific. For example, a painting is made with paint and the technology (paint types, brushes, oils, varnishes, canvases, etc) are identified with painting, as well as the techniques ( painting methods and skills). (3) Defining art by its use becomes possible when we borrow Théophile Gauthier’s assertion from Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835): “L’Art pour l’art”, or art for art’s sake, meaning art serves its own purpose. We only need to accept that use, function, and purpose are interchangeable. (4) Here is the truest point where one needs to stretch interpretation to achieve a similarity between art and crafts. If we extrapolate Morelli’s (2019) suggestion that art tells a novel story into art tells a story in a novel way, then like crafts, art can tell traditional stories as well. It simply does it from a novel or alternate perspective. To help accept this similarity, we need look no further than the ideologies of Post-Modernism.
A meeting at the vanishing point
Arts and crafts can as easily be defined by how they are different, as to how they are the same. Perspectives and choices play a significant roles in doing this. One can pick the “ism” of their choice to argue their perspectives, however, the art movement that personifies their similarities the most for me is post-modernism.
“…postmodernism was born of scepticism and a suspicion of reason… It challenged the notion that there are universal certainties or truths… postmodernism refused to recognize the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be… It collapsed the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, between art and everyday life…Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes’.” www.tate.org (2019)
For this last statement we can supply an abundance of examples that elevate traditional crafts, modern crafts, and decorative arts to the lofty status of “ART”. Where ‘anything goes’, everything is possible. Using specific examples from the works of Picasso, Foulem, and Koons, we find an intersection of high arts and traditional crafts. Their work debunks Houdé’s argument on several levels and further emphasizes Morelli’s view that one must consider current events, trends, and aesthetics when deciding what is art. With a concession given to Greenberg, all objects can be seen as ugly initially, but can also become art in time.
“Je ne cherche pas, je trouve”
According to Claude Picasso in Picasso – painter and sculptor in clay (1998), this quote refers to Picasso’s belief that an artist need not look for where they can be creative, instead they must play with the materials and creativity will deliver the art. While at Atelier Madoura, after WWII, Picasso transformed traditional ceramic forms from functional into sculptural and redefined these ceramic crafts as art. His art-star status aside, he used traditional materials and techniques in a novel way to create emotionally charged and evocative art. The culmination of his explorations are the jugs he deconstructed, then reconstructed to represent birds and the female figure. It’s hard to say if they would be as widely accepted as art had he not painted his signature lines on them, or he hadn’t previously made a vast series of painted plates and un-modified jugs and bowls, or if it was just because he is Picasso. I believe he created art there due to his ability to transform a standard object/form into something that challenged the traditional perception of those objects. Most remained functional objects that could enhance one’s living space, but now they inspired thoughts and reactions beyond those of mere beauty; they achieved the value of art.
In the article, “What types of styles can be associated with works of art?”(no attributed date on pdf), Sager states: “Making and/or experiencing art involves reacting imaginatively and idiosyncratically to symbols and implied metaphors.” We have come to understand the significance of recurring symbols used by Picasso: the bird for peace, the bull for his virility, the female for his desires, etc… He used these symbols to transform the traditional forms of pottery to engage the viewer-toucher’s and make their experience of the objects more meaningful. He elevated the crafts into arts. “To Be or Not To Be” is not a question; it’s an imperative
Leopold Foulem (May, 2019), stated in his lecture that he was dedicated to a strict adherence of the traditions of ceramic crafts in all but the composition and function. His choice of clay body and glazes may stem from a crafts and decorative arts origins, but his compositions are entirely non-functional and challenging to the aesthetic sensibilities of some viewers, while also offering a challenge to some prevailing mindsets. His work has something to say and through an autobiographical lens, they build awareness that cause some to stop and think about our socio-sexual mores and cultural biases in today’s world.
The modernist view asked us to intellectualize and rationalize the form the object, before labelling it art. This limited some personal expression, and structured creativity to the extent of going against what Vasari instigated with his renaissance redefinitions of the artists as creative masters. They could be seen as closing doors on re-interpretations, from a certain perspective. That would not have defined Picasso, and made more evident why and how Foulem was pivotal in defining the freedoms of post-modernism. The circle of connectivity here is that an artist like Foulem is equally master art historian and technical master, who uses traditional knowledge as a medium of expression. For him, he must be who he is and who he is is a culmination of all he knows. He uses that to tell the visual stories of his work. For example, what Foulem is doing with a homosexual theme, Jeff Koons is doing with a heterosexual theme. Both have made a conscious decision to use media as master craftsmen, following traditional techniques, forms, lines, etc, to express a unique allegory. They tell evocative stories that are novel and challenging to social norms. They give us opportunity to reflect on the world around us.
Houdé’s statement raised the question: can art be created out of craft? The answer is as subjective as are the definitions of art. When we define crafts by their focus on traditional materials, inspirations, and forms, the function they provide, and devalue ornamentation as decorative, not artistic, then we can distinguish it from art. We must also accept the fundamental and self-serving purpose of art being for its own sake. With this in mind we could accept Houdé’s assertion. However, these distinctions are subjective classifications that only serve to distinguish between them. Art and craft both can be aesthetically pleasing, evoke emotion and thought, and tell a story. While one prefers celebrating traditions in its expressions, the other can equally do so. The same can be said for experimenting with techniques and methods. Picasso and Foulem are the embodiment of this conclusion. Both have a reverence of the traditional materials and techniques, and both used them traditionally to tell new stories that challenged our sensibilities.
Art and craft can both be expressions of beauty or the ugly, and the media used to evoke this reaction is transformed by the artist in its use. Koons’ crystal Kama Sutra sculptures and Foulem’s penis prominent ceramics are still ugly to my eye, but are undoubtedly pleasing to someone. Traditional Japanese Rakus are glorious to my eyes, but ugly to some others. Accepting beauty, either immediately or eventually cannot be a standard definition of art. Therefore, the materials’ innate beauty is a subjective as how it is used. In this case, art, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Craft can be defined by its function, but cannot exclude the object from being art. There too, it is in the eye of the beholder. I might accept Houdé’s statement, if it were restated as: “Art, when it is made for art’s sake, cannot be craft, and craft when it doesn’t evokes any emotional, or sensual reaction, cannot be art. Until, then, the lines and similarities between art and craft remain blurred.
1 – What’s the difference between art & craft? https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/introduction-ap-arthistory/v/is-there-a-difference-between-art-and-craft-laura-morelli
2 – What types of styles can be associated with works of art?: https://www.connect.ecuad.ca/~vsager/DOWNHANDS/ART%20Terminology.pdf
3 – Replacing the myth of modernism: Metcalf, Bruce
American Craft; Feb 1993; 53, 1; ProQuest pg. 40
4 – Why is That Art? – Aesthetics and criticism of contemporary art, 2nd ed.(2012): Barrett, Terry., Oxford Press
5 – “L’art pour l’art”. Gauthier, Théophile, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835): ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_for_art%27s_sake
6 – Postmodernism. Tate Gallery (2019): https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/postmodernism
7 – 20th Century Ceramics. De Wall, Edmund. 2003. Thames & Hudson – world of art series
8 – Picasso – painter and sculptor in clay. McCully, Marilyn, editor. 1998. Belgium. Harry N. Abrams Inc.