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What is a craft?

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« on: September 22, 2013, 11:38:20 pm »

What is Craft?

by D. Scott Patria

This essay has proven harder for me to write than I ever imagined; I’ve been involved in the field for over a decade. I’ve built a gallery that’s nationally recognized. I know what Craft is. I deal with it every day... it’s a passion.

I’ve just never had to write it down before.

First off, Craft is not a dirty word.
Craft objects occupy a varied space in the arts realm, somewhere between “fine art” and design, with the term “sculpture” likely applying to as many objects in the Craft realm as it does the realm of Fine Art. “The objects we call Art or Craft are members of a continual spectrum under the creativity banner. Odds-on, the most purposeful and predictable will be labeled "crafts", while the most abstract and useless will not”. – Bruce DeBoer

In the context of the art world,” Craft is often capitalized, or preceeded by the words “Fine” or “Contemporary” to distinguish the subject from crafts, which conjures the image of macramé plant hangers popular in the 70’s. Of course, there is also a distinction between “arts & crafts” (items such as those typically found at holiday gift sales), and Arts & Crafts (a style of furnishings popular in the early 1900s). Craft is about objects, the artists who make them and the people who use them. These objects surround us in our every day activities and allow us to interact and relate in a way traditional “fine art” doesn’t. Studio Furniture, a sub-set of craft objects, is an excellent example.

So... now that we know what Craft is conceptually, what is it in practical terms? For our purposes, Craft is used to describe the output of artists working primarily with glass, clay, wood, fiber, etc. High craftsmanship is rooted in human skill, expertise, dexterity, ability, and technique. Fine Craft represents an apogee of technical skill. It has an aesthetics of surface, body and edge that relates to the material and tool choices made by the artisan. Evidence of the maker’s hand is a significant element of the craft object. Art versus craft vocabularies notwithstanding, what is clear is that the world of contemporary fine craft is extremely involved in touch. Craft is what connects us to the artist; it's the difference between satisfying a challenge and indecipherable theories.

Craft objects need not be strictly utilitarian; in fact, many artists create objects that may reference function, but are not actually useable. A common such form is the teapot. While many handcrafted teapots are indeed useable, a great many are not, being far more sculptural, with perhaps only the barest hint at the original form… just enough to supply the contrast. An excellent example of these works would be the ‘The Artful Teapot’ exhibition held at the Chicago Cultural Center in October 2003. While many works had a working lid and spout, I doubt many of use would ever dream of filling them with boiling water!

Since interpretation and validation of art is frequently a matter of context, an audience may perceive crafted objects as art objects when these objects are viewed within an art context, such as in a museum. Unfortunately, while nearly all museums hold craft objects in their collections, not many dedicate departments to them. The Art Institute usually has a small display, including works by Wendell Castle, Isamu Noguchi, George Nakashima, William Hunter, and others. Some museums, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, have special galleries dedicated to a particular medium (in its case, glass & wood) as a result of substantial donations. For many others, Craft objects are catalogued as “Decorative Arts” or “Applied Arts”. But other museums, such as the Racine Art Museum (WI), the Fuller Craft Museum (MA), the Mint Museum of Craft + Design (NC), the Museum of Arts & Design (NY) and of course the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution (DC) are all dedicated wholly or in large part, to Craft. And of course, *many* of the Art museums in the US have at least one work by Dale Chihuly in their collection. Indeed, I’ve said for some time now that once, an artist needed to be collected by a museum to be validated… these days, it seems a museum needs to collect a Chihuly for it to be validated.

 Despite the relative dearth of museums collecting and showcasing contemporary craft, it is nonetheless a very healthy, active, and growing segment of the overall art market in the US. In fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in FY2000, the overall market for “art” in the U.S. surpassed $31B; sales of the segment “Decorative Arts and Fine Craft” exceeded $13.8B, and employed over 100,000 artists. Not too shabby.
Of course, you may have already seen some of these artists... at various summer fairs, at SOFA each fall, and hopefully, in your visits to galleries both locally and in your travels. But you can also learn a great deal online (although Googling “Craft” still tends to get you a list of fun projects for kids… usually involving elbow macaroni), and by reading some of the many publications devoted to the topic. There are a couple magazines that provide a nice overview of the field in general, like American Craft Magazine, a publication of the American Craft Council (which also produces some good shows), but mostly, the coverage of the field tends to be broken down by specific medium, with magazines like Ceramics Monthly, Glass Quarterly, Metalsmith, FiberArts, etc. Somewhat different from the usual art magazines like ArtNews, Art & Antiques, etc, most publications about contemporary craft also pay some bit of attention to the “how”, not just the what or the why.

Like any new endeavor, the best thing you can do is research, learn and explore. If you find you really respond to a certain medium, or form, then it’s time to take the next step... a purchase. Again, do your research, ask questions – get friendly with your dealer (or several). It’s our job to help you make informed decisions. Start small - it’s far better to purchase a wonderful piece that you respond to by an unknown artist than to chase a lesser work by someone famous. Most of all… Have Fun.

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