Art, Contemporary Craft, and the Traditional Handcrafts


     This is a very interesting subject. Over the past few years I have been reading what I can find on the subject.  After reading all this material, it's hard to try to write a short post on the subject. Hard? I'd say impossible. If the subject is contained on many books, I doubt I will be able to get anywhere near a conclusion. In fact there may not be one. Time will tell.  I'm trying to look at this partly culturally or in the way our culture sees art and craft, very broad. But I also have my personal reasons as a maker of things. Or I could say my desire to individualize the definitions of art and craft.  I'm trying to make a living doing it, so there are issues or questions that drive this for me from that perspective as well.

     I'm going to try to ramble away at this. This will be a work in progress. Some of the thoughts/ concepts are based on what I have learned from the reading I've done. I will not be able to bring you up to speed. If you really like this subject read some of the books I have listed at the end. Maybe this will be in parts as I learn more about this or as we all do. I also want to add that I've gotten into heated arguments on this subject as well. I am not attacking you personally. But, in the spirit of debate,  I may question ideas. Our ideas are not us, but that's a whole other topic.

      I'm sitting at a table at the local market selling my wares. I have some wooden spoons, birch bark baskets, wooden bowls, etc. Many of the things are decorated. A friend walks by and says I have great art and refers to me as an artist. I ask her why is this art? why am I an artist? The replies are always similar. "because they are beautiful","because you are creative", "because these things are uncommon","because your a professional","because you are skilled",etc.....None of these reasons make me an artist or what I make art. None. Why? Here is the rant.....beautiful is subjective, almost anything is beautiful to someone. A car can be viewed as beautiful, is the designer called an artist by folks on the street? No. Is the car called art? No. The same goes for professional and skilled. Both of these reasons can be taken apart as well. Doctors and mechanics are both skilled and professionals, do we as a society view them as artist? No. When we look up the word art, there are many definitions, 16+, there is a definition that relates to "the art of", "the art of "car mechanics. Those that understand or are the master of "the art of " cannot be artists. Why? Because we as a culture we simply do not see them that way. You can if you wish, but there will be a serious cause and effect that we are in full swing of right now. I feel that we are unconsciously changing the definitions of the word art or craft for that matter at our own peril. Could it be that we are so needy for positive reinforcement for what we do, in this modern world, that the word "art" and "artist" makes us feel better about ourselves? what we do? or are the financial benefits of selling craft as art driving this, or both. What about the modern industrial manufacturing process and the rarity of the handmade, how does this affect art and craft, or our cultural definitions of the words. Obviously my friend thought that because what I make is hand made and fairly rare, that it was special, that it was art. Is art special? is craft special? Personally I am a simple spoon carver and bowl turner, a woodworker. Historically I would have been at pretty low class status. Craft is low class status with it's roots in the vernacular. That is what I feel we need to come to terms with.

     I believe the words like art, craft, etc....have lost some of their meanings or have been blurred over time and through the industrial production era of our past. The definitions have changed.  I believe that today, in the modern world, with the current blurred definitions, that it comes down to the first intended purpose of what we create, it's function. Yes, art has a function. If I carved a spoon and wanted to try to communicate some emotion or experience to the viewer, first and foremost, then I have created art. Art communicates first and foremost. If the spoon was intended to be used as true to it's original utilitarian design or purpose than its a craft item. Craft items are based in utility, decorated or not.

     When what have been historically craft mediums  clay, wood, and iron, or craft techniques carving, forging, weaving are used for communicating i.e "art" in the form of sculpture, what is it? Art or craft? I would argue that it is art and should be judged by the art world, with the sets of aesthetic requirements that the art world and it's academia has developed over the past few hundred years. If the woven sculpture cannot be accepted into the art world, too bad. It can't be both craft and art. If your turning a wooden bowl to be set and looked upon as beautiful, created to convey the woods beauty, it is a turned sculpture in the form of a bowl. It cannot be craft. Yes, it can be made with craft materials or craft techniques but if its intent/purpose is aligned with art or sculpture, to communicate some idea or feeling, it is not craft. The craft purpose or intent of a bowl is to be used to hold something in it. Always has always will.  I believe the word craft has been hijacked by artists. This doesn't help the understanding of what craft means, it makes it more confusing for all of us. If craft today means some sculpture woven with strips of rubber that cannot be used or a piece of exotic wood with twists and curls and a little dished out area and it's called a spoon? I do not want any part of it. These things are art made with craft materials and techniques. The contemporary craft world is promoting craft techniques and materials as art. So are they artist or crafts folk? Either way their seems to be some sort of identity crisis.

     My purpose and intent is to make utilitarian items, designs for use i.e. spoons, bowls, baskets. They are craft because that is my intent for them and their history and purpose lodged within their design. These items can be put on the wall, but they are not art, at least to me, because I didn't make them as art or to communicate somethings as their intended purpose. If the owners of my painted spoons want to be like Duchamp and create a "ready made" art object with my spoon. Then they are, though the art world would argue, the artist, by trying to communicate something with the item I created. I am a craftsman(if I was a women I would be a craftswomen) what I create is craft, traditional handcraft.

Traditional handcraft. This is where my work lies. The meaning is pretty self explanatory. It may not be perfect but it's better than craft or art. It works.  Could there be a National Traditional Handcrafts Association? There already is, we just have to start talking. Join in, but remember this is all a work in progress.......

Some related books-I'd be into hearing more titles if anyone knows of any.
The Culture of Craft by Dormer
The Theory of Craft by Risatti
The Unknown Craftsman by Yanagi
The Craftsman by Sennet

jarrod14 Comments