Art and crafts: worlds apart even when the look is similar

I know someone who insists that the line separating art and the crafts will cease to exist in 50 years or so - that, in fact, any remaining distinctions between them today are kept alive by art historians and writers on art and that any past differences between the two were based much more on religious, philosophical, and political considerations than on aesthetic ones.

In other words, this person believes that a point of fusion will soon be reached between modernism's passionate quest for pure form and the craft world's increasing awareness of its aesthetic potential and identity--that the work produced at that point will differ only in externals--mainly in matters of purpose and function. All of it that has quality will be art.

It's an interesting argument, especially since anyone can see how some modernist art and some of the best of contemporary crafts are becoming increasingly alike, and since it's based on the fairly reasonable assumption that artistic creativity will continue to move in the same direction it has for the past 75 years.

It also makes logical sense within the context of 20th-century modernism, and helps to explain the tremendous leaps in quality that have taken place in the craft world during the past two decades.

It also, I might add, reflects the direction in which some art-critical thinking is going today.

Even so, I don't believe it for a moment and see this argument mainly as one more attempt to prove that art and craft are really one and the same thing.

They're not. The differences between them are considerable, and it is a measure of our artistic confusion today that we think we can equate the two.

Put in its simplest terms, craft is either strictly utilitarian--that is, it is simply and only the making of objects for clear37 defined practical or decorative purposes--or it is a preliminary form of art, a preliminary step toward art.

Now, obviously, craft has its roots in practicality, in the fact that, historically, craft objects were designed for use--either for everyday and ordinary occasions, or for special and grand religious or political occasions. And yet the quality of the work produced was sometimes so extraordinarily high that these pieces of ''craft'' assumed the stature of art (some Chinese and Japanese ceramics and textiles, Persian rugs, Egyptian funerary objects, etc.). What has complicated the matter even more is that many craftspeople today create , exhibit, discuss, and sell their work more in the manner of contemporary painters and sculptors than in the manner of traditional craftsmen.

At heart, however, both the artist and the craftsman, the painter and the potter, begin with craft--in the one case the shaping of something out of paint, in the other, the shaping of something out of clay. In both cases that something has all the potentials for art - possibly even on the level of a Vermeer painting or a Chinese Ming Dynasty vase. The level of art achieved, however, will not depend on the type of craftsmanship employed or the type of material used, but on what the person shaping that work aspires toward and accomplishes.

Art concerns itself with the shaping of physical things so as to use those things to give form to and to communicate extra-physical truths, ideas, ideals, values, qualities, etc. (This is true even of such styles as Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism, Minimalism, etc., whose creators vehemently deny any such intentions.)

Keeping that in mind, any type of craft or material can theoretically be turned into art. There is nothing intrinsic in paint or lacking in fiber, for instance, to cause the one to become art and the latter to remain a craft. Just so, it is absurd to assume that anyone who works in marble is automatically an artist, while someone who works with baked clay is automatically a craftsman.

The fact of the matter is that those individuals working in what are known as the crafts generally do not aspire to the rarefied goals and ideals of art. They tend to involve themselves in the making of handsome, even at times stunningly beautiful, things for mainly utilitarian or purely aesthetically pleasurable purposes. These individuals' goal is to make objects that are useful or attractive, or both, not to objectify and to communicate profound or lyrically moving feelings, ideas, etc., through their craft and into art. And if any do, and do it well, it is my opinion that what they produce should automatically be classified as art.

Let me be very clear. I'm saying that art is ultimately determined by a very subtle fusion of what is communicated and the manner in which it is communicated , and not by the specific type of craft or material utilized; that, in short, we cannot determine the level, or define the quality, of a work merely on the basis of its being made of clay, fiber, silver, ink on paper, bronze, oil on canvas--or whatever.

If craftsmen do not generally create art, it isn't because they cannot, by definition, do so, but because their intentions are directed elsewhere. Regardless of the direction certain people in the crafts have taken today, the traditional craftsman and the artist differ considerably in their interests and objectives - with much the same difference as exists between the person who sees a telescope and admires it for its shape and manufacture, and the person who looks through it in order to see the stars.

On the other hand, we must be careful not to label works incorrectly. Much of what passes for art today is really closer to clever craftsmanship than to art, and quite a number of the things we identify as craft are really art. As an art critic, I find it most disconcerting at times to discover that the most beautiful, exciting - even the most significant - things on view at a particular time are in the craft galleries and museums.

Anyone still harboring the slightest doubts as to the extraordinary quality achieved in the craft field would do well to leaf through a few recent issues of the American Craft Council's excellent magazine, American Craft. It offers a precise and highly rewarding insight into today's craft activities, and would, I'm certain, be a humbling experience for anyone still holding to the notion that potters, weavers, silversmiths, fiberists, wood-craftsmen, workers in glass , etc., are little more than skilled but low-level laborers.

Or better still, such a person should visit some of the craft museums and galleries scattered throughout the United States. What he would find there would undoubtedly cause him to change his mind both about contemporary crafts and about those who create them.

My own introduction to the craft world came through my wife, who is a professional craftsperson. Thanks largely to her, my education has been extensive, and has been going on for over 20 years. And judging by the gleam in her eye, it will be going on for at least 20 more.

What I have learned has increased my appreciation of the crafts a thousandfold. I have learned now to savor things for their own sake, how to enjoy the rich surfaces of glazed clay, glass, wood, metal - and the many other materials being used today. I've become particularly enchanted by quilts, and find that a few from the 19th century, and some finished only a few months or years ago, are as stunning and aesthetically satisfying as some of the better paintings of the 1970s.

I've seen a few recent clay pieces that look like bowls and vases, but that have that touch of perfection found only in the finest art. I've seen fiber wall-hangings that bring bursts of color and movement into plain rooms. And pieces made out of glass that seem almost too miraculous to be true.For all of this I'm profoundly grateful, for it has immeasurably enhanced my life. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the craft world is increasingly enriching our lives, is making our world a more pleasant and beautiful place in which to live.

And yet, the craft vs. art debate goes on. It may not rage as fiercely as it did a few decades ago, but it simply will not subside.

As for myself, I can't help but feel that craft, for all its quality and importance, its beauty and usefulness, is too earthbound and particular to match successfully art's profound significances. I always return, usually very much against my will, to the conclusion that craft exists in the ''foreground'' of human creative activity, that it is basically content just to be, to find its identity in the here-and-now; while art, for better or worse, is always straining on its leash, is always trying to go beyond the immediate and the particular in order to make contact with something bigger, more ideal, more whole, and, one hopes, more true.

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