It Boils Down to Intention!
March 2014 Filed in: Art
A few years ago, The American Crafts Museum changed its named to The Museum of Arts and Design, almost to say that it has expanded its focus to include all kinds of creativity. In a sense, they have purged themselves of the word “craft” in favor of higher arts; which is also the space that many craftspeople want to belong in. To many visual arts enthusiasts, craft is now “applied art”!
Some creatives suggest that the difference between arts and crafts is one of semantics; it is emotional rather than technical, and stems from our inherent need to evaluate the worthiness of things, and assign artificial values to them. I can’t think of a single thing that we don’t assign artificial values to.
But, I think of arts and crafts as two divergent but linked spheres of creativity. They are not separated by hierarchical status, but in the same way that botany is different from zoology, although they are both independent but interdependent branches of biology, with many coexisting and deeply-divided subgroups represented in each! The differences between arts and crafts are meant to give rise to conversation on their distinctiveness, their mutualistic relationship and their contribution to the overall ecology; such as, how we consider the world within and around us. But, regrettably, this has become a socio-economical (in some countries, also political) difference, especially as the two are becoming more and more institutionalized. We are now forced to choose between market and tradition, when in fact the two in many instances were one and the same.
Arts and crafts share the same building blocks of skill, dexterity, technique and design that go all the way back to ancient times from when they have advanced through innovation that is either steeped in or intentionally breaks away from cultural mores. Over time, as we developed different ways of making, the many complex histories and mutations of their evolution led not only to the creation of many nomenclatures of arts and crafts, but also multifarious cultures and communities whose people’s livelihood became their way of living. The communities have also contributed to the creation and continuation of societal hierarchies in many countries. Now, the two terms have come to describe either many disciplines or many processes. Sometimes, when one is a noun, the other serves as its verb, and vice versa. They are also used to address conceptual ideas or philosophies, such as “the art of war” or “the art of problem solving” or “the art of filmmaking”. Many of these are arguably as much craft as they are art, or both or neither, even though the word craft is never used in this sense, except where we’ve lost the knowledge of making something (eg: early typography) or want to celebrate the process of making it. Craft in this sense is tied to some kind of ethnographic nostalgia, and our desire to celebrate everything that was. This is the same sentiment that draws us to museums! History often pours life into dying traditions.
Arts and crafts are different in the importance that the mechanical end of creating has over the ideational end; and that form has over function. Having said that, not all craft is utilitarian, and not all art is non-utilitarian, so it boils down to intention: why something was created and how it is used. One may not approach an artist or a craftsperson with the intention of finding things with a utilitarian function, but so that one may find a sublime experience in something that is of utilitarian value.
So what truly differentiates arts from crafts is that, art favors the Individual and places a high value on originality, subjectivity and the artists themselves. It endeavors to fulfil a philosophical purpose mostly by appealing to our physical and emotional senses and intellect. Whereas, craft is about the Collective (mostly anonymous, except in cases of studio craft) and gives importance to service and function, and appeals to our desire to continue legacies. It sees itself more as something that can be taught and carried on forever (unlike art, that some argue cannot be taught, even though there are as many art schools as there are craft schools and lots of art suffers from the same derivativeness that craft is accused of).
Artists may intend for their work to record history and ideas from their subjective perspective, but craftspeople assume the unique burden of preserving the heritage of their own people by passing on their traditions without adulteration. There is a purity about their purpose, not just because of the timelessness of the tools that are used, and things that are made, but because of what and who they represent, the rich cultures of their communities, their ritualistic practices and their unwavering commitment to their truth. There is little to no space for individual subjectivity in craft. Most craftspeople are anonymous ethnographers who willingly subsume their personalities into the Collective (except, again, in studio craft)!
But, here at the ACC show, we find ourselves in a space where art and craft are like tweedledum and tweedledee; they are practically indistinguishable. You can see the works here as art made with intention, or craft intending to transcend to expression; or art that follows structure and becomes craft, or craft that breaks paradigms and becomes art; Almost every piece of work is functional, but also assumes its own identity.
Every artist and craftsperson here is highly-skilled and aesthetically-minded and puts both hand and mind, innate and learned skills to work in equal measure. There is utilitarian value to almost every work, but their value is equally in their capacity to tickle our neurons and make us feel delight. One mainly goes to the ACC show to seek a humane experience; to chat up the artists and craftspeople and learn about how they learnt their skills, honed their expressive talents, and where they draw their inspirations from.
There is something to be said about the warmth they exude, and the vibrance they add to the experience, and I think it comes from feeling like an important part of a larger community; one with a long history that has seen many reincarnations, each morphing into the other or becoming something entirely new.
And then there is an elation that goes with discovering the unknown and in allowing artists to project their views onto us, so that we are infused with their aspirations and can take those leaps of imagination with them. We explore the emotional possibilities of their work from their vantage point, as if it is our own. And they recognize that and that helps them flourish.
Every craftsperson here starts with a clear vision of the end to be achieved and the way to achieve it. But, because they are also artists who intend to explore the undiscovered possibilities of their craft and the formal and expressive properties of their mediums, they are entirely dependent on us to buy into their vision. Their magic delivers us into a nebulous area, that we make more clear with our aesthetic judgements. They are eager to allow us to enter their space so that together, we may explore and clarify what their works mean for all of us, and collectively expand and cultivate our spirits! In a way we meet in the middle from two opposite sides of the same experience. Artists, feed their discourse into a representational object, and we retranslate their representational object using our own subjective view. And there is much to be gained both economically and intellectually from this transaction of subjectivity.
Even though crafts are set up more like a business, it is arts that have grown to be more economically viable, because each piece of work is exclusive, and its value lies as much in its aesthetic qualities as in the privilege of owning it. This economical model based on breeding “absolute taste” is one that even designers use when they make high-priced “limited” editions of their work that is separate from their low-priced mass-productions (price also depends on the designer and how the product is marketed)! Studio crafts can neither sustain the overhead costs associated with making just one-of-a-kind pieces, nor compete with the volume of manufactured goods made by designer’s. Moreover, craftsmen also have to compete against amateur DIY-businesses (for example: those selling to scrapbookers and other hobby-crafts) or the kitsch-crafts sold in tourist places that have come to serve as cultural-representatives! The competition from all corners forces them to price even their one-of-a-kind handmade works the same as a designer’s manufactured works!
Craftspeople are slow to embrace the integrationalist mentality that designer’s have that allows them to willingly imprint themselves on creatively manufactured work. This stems partly from their belief that modern technology has not helped improve either the “art of craft” or the “craft of art” over the years, but also from their insecurity that goes all the way back to the late-Victorian period, when the term Craft was used to separate craftsmen’s “handmade” and “human” work from the “perfect” and “impersonal” manufactured products. When in fact, craftspeople are better suited to modern mechanisms of production, because of their intimate understanding of process. Their purpose automatically humanizes the “impersonal”!
There is an urgency in trying to save marginalized craft communities from getting completely erased, by bringing awareness to the fact that the end of a craft also means the end of a people, a culture, and the loss of history!
If what is rare is valuable, the tide should turn towards this threatened field, whose skills are now becoming rare, but, even now, the craftspeople who are able survive are those who are positioning themselves as artists or are willing to resign from their studio model, and work with the design industry. So the purist-craftspeople who have insulated themselves from external influences are now also forced to fight the craftspeople who have embraced newer industrial techniques and technologies to both hone their crafts and produce more inventory. Their internal dichotomy has fueled many of the crafts movements we now see in our times. It is giving rise to eclecticism and creating many different paths for revival. It will be interesting to see how they change craft practices and shape their economic, cultural and intellectual contexts in the future!
Ultimately Design is the Borneo shared by artists, craftspeople and manufacturers. It is the green, where art is violet and craft is red. It is where arts and crafts crossover and become one and the same.