Group I –Crit Theory Response
Is Craft Beneath Art?
“You might want to check out what is happening in crafts today,” was Deb Todd Wheeler’s advice to me during her critique of my work. I cringed at the thought of my work being equated with craft. Why did I have such a low opinion of craft when I have enjoyed doing batik, needlework, sewing, knitting, pottery, and other crafts? Where did I get the notion that crafts were subordinate to art? Perhaps it had come out of my experience in art school in the 1980s. I certainly never mentioned how much I had enjoyed my years of creating batiks while I was learning the “fine art” of painting. No one dared stoop so low as to include any mention of craft in that setting. Therefore, it was no surprise to me when I read Judy Chicago’s essay on her experience of making her dinner party piece in the 1970s. Her opinion of craft mirrored my feelings on the subject. Judy Chicago’s wrote, “classically trained as an artist, I felt uneasy with my interest in decorative arts,” (qtd. in Fabrozzi 319) i.e. crafts. She goes on to further decry crafts. “It was an excruciating experience to watch enormously gifted women squander their creative talents in teacups.” (qtd. in Fabrozzi 321)
Despite my initial reaction, I took Deb Todd Wheeler’s advice and began to investigate the current craft scene, and as I read I learned more about the history of craft as well. The more I read, the more I appreciated craft. In this paper I will address how craft became viewed as inferior to art in the Renaissance, and how a wider historical view ( pre-Renaissance and post 1970s) argues against de-valuing craft. I will first explain the Renaissance ideas I am refuting before looking more closely at two historical examples of cultural shifts that resulted from craft, one from China and the other from Greece. Finally, I will look at contemporary art after the 1970s to demonstrate the ways in which the line between art and craft has become increasingly blurred.
As Tanya Herrod notes in referring to the issues between crafts people and artists, the “tension between the maker, battling materials and the cool conceptualist… has a longer history that we might imagine.” (qtd. in Britton Newell 30) However, it was during the Renaissance that artists began to separate themselves by their claim to originality. (Sennett 66) They were elevating themselves above the lowly craftsmen who worked in guilds where handed down skills were valued. (Sennett 66) Artists considered themselves self-sufficient, autonomous, and answering to an inner life compared to the craftsman, who possessed none of these qualities. The work of the artist was meant to spotlight him or herself, whereas the work of a good craftsman “was not even meant to be noticed.”(Adamson 13) Within these generalizations, of course, there were exceptions-no one has been able to duplicate the craft of a Stradivarius violin.
Before the Renaissance artists proliferated the view of craft as beneath art, craft had been held in high value—a view that dates back to earliest people. Broadly defined, craft was a learned ability which came from “…the intimate connection of hand and head” (Sennett 9) which encompassed fields as wide as wide as “bricklaying, cooking, or playing the cello,”(Sennett 9); craft involved the skill of handling a material and took dedication to learn technique. It was an artistry that was passed down through generations and evolved over long periods of time. The contributions made by craft have been profound.
An example of such a contribution rose in China during the Chou Dynasty (between 1045 and 286 BC) when chefs developed the craft of using the cleaver. Chefs learned to use this single knife to prepare food that was to be eaten with chopsticks (no sharp implements at the table). As an understanding of the use of the cleaver developed, the chefs found ways to work with greater and greater efficiency and skill. They perfected a fore arm technique that gave the greatest accuracy with the least effort. They used the least possible effort to make each cut and just as the cleaver was about to slice, the force was withdrawn. “Cleave a grain of rice thus stands for two bodily rules intimately connected: establish a baseline of minimum necessary power and learn to let go.” (Sennett 168)
This understanding of how to use the body for handling the cleaver crossed over to Japan where the same principles were used in teaching archery. The sport of archery became a major component of Zen Buddhism, and the understanding of the body was subsequently translated into tenets of Zen. What originated as an understanding of the craft of using the cleaver in China grew into a foundation of Buddhism in Japan: “…the evocation of the tranquil spirit, which should attend the moment.” (Sennett 168) Zen Buddhism continues to share its wisdom today, worldwide.
Craft also made major contributions to European culture. Circa 600 BCE, Greeks began to venture to great distances overseas and the ships needed to be able to endure long voyages. Tar covered joints proved leaky. Taking the principles from weaving of warp (vertical strands) wrapped around woof (horizontal strands), Greek shipbuilders were able to figure out how to use mortise-and-tenon joints to produce seaworthy boats. The security of a close right-angle joint held the weaver’s cloth tight as well as the ships’ wooden angles. “At first glance…it makes no sense to liken a ship to cloth. But the craftsman’s slow working through forces the logic.”(Sennett 128)
These more durable ships enabled the Greeks to establish numerous colonies. Each colony was ruled by a city and in these earliest cities the streets were laid out on a grid of right angles. The layout of many cities today reflect this ancient Greek design that originated in weaving.
With the Renaissance and the rise of the individual artist, craft was relegated to a secondary position relative to “fine art”. This lasted for centuries. However, since the 1970s, and with the arrival of performance art, sound art, installation art, and the Internet, the whole field of art has shifted. The delineations between areas have become more porous. Artists move easily between one medium and another. “In a world of seamlessly interlinked options the idea of a major artist like Francis Bacon devoting a life, day on day, to one genre, the practice of painting, has come to seem unusual, even exotic.” (Britton-Newell 29)
The traditional ways that an artist defined him or herself was according to the medium: as a painter or sculptor, etc. Because so many artists use unusual media now, all art forms are commonly referred to as work: “Whether an artist makes something from paint and canvas, metal, video tape, whether (large or small) and whether in a gallery, a city park, or on a computer screen…that thing can be called work.” (Adamson 16)
In some arenas, craft can still “carry an air of crabby conservatism…unswervingly devoted to objects.” (Adamson 168) However, in terms of the art scene itself, there are a good number of artists practicing in traditional craft areas: Sheila Pepe and Mi-Yi Sung work in crochet and knitting, Dorothy Caldwell works in cloth dying and sewing, and Anna Torma works in hand embroidery, in addition to many others. Today, the art world does not discriminate against craft as it once did.
Since researching craft, I now stand at the other end of the spectrum from where I started. No longer embarrassed at Deb Todd Wheeler’s recommendation to look into craft, I now greatly value her advice: no longer caught in the narrowness of Judy Chicago’s 1970s perspective, I find my mind has been opened up to a range of possibilities.
Adamson, Glenn, Thinking Through Craft, London: Yale University Press, 2008, Print.
Britton-Newell, Laura, Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2007. Print.
Fabozzi, Paul, Artists, Critics, Context, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.
Sennett, Richard, The Craftsman, London: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.