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Art’s Abject Other or the “New Cool”? Should Philosophy Rethink the Art/Craft Dich
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Larry Shiner

Few philosophers of art today concern themselves much with craft. For some it may be because “craft” is associated with amateurism and craft fairs. Others may believe that Collingwood put craft in its place long ago as a narrow means-end process. Of course, many art critics, theorists, and historians also continue to view craft as art’s lowly other. And even some craft institutions have come to treat studio craft as “the art form that dare not say its name,” e.g., the American Craft Museum dropping “craft” from its name in 2002 to become a Museum of Arts and Design.[1]

But “craft” won’t stay put. In the last few years, there have been signs some of the stigma is wearing off. In 2003 Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize, went to Grayson Perry for his quirky narrative pottery and in 2007, Tracey Emin, who uses appliqué and quilting techniques in her work, was Britain’s representative to the Venice Biennale. Just last year, a score of art critics and theorists writing in Extra/Ordinary: Craft in Contemporary Art, testified to the changing perception of craft, one of them even calling craft “the new cool.”[2] Ironically, a major factor in this change has been the emergence of an amateur craft movement called “Indie” or “DIY” crafts, whose young makers market their irreverent and funky works over the internet. But the most impressive aspect of DIY are the “craftivists” (craft+activism) who do things like knitting “cozys” to put over everything from public statues to tanks, a guerrilla activity known as “yarn bombing.” This upending of the image of craft has even infected art history, as shown by Elisa Auther’s brilliant study of how the fiber arts overcame decades of art world prejudice based on a highly gendered “hierarchy of art and craft.”[3]

But does it really matter philosophically whether a few critics, curators and historians are now ready to view craft more positively? I believe it does in the sense that the current revisionist views are symptoms of deeper conceptual issues.

Obviously, the central issue is the identity of craft itself. To begin with, we need to distinguish “craft” as the name of a process, from “craft” as the name of a set of disciplines. The two concepts are not only radically divergent in function, but have very different histories. As the name of a process, “craft” is roughly synonymous with “skill” or “cunning,” meanings that go back to the Middle Ages. “Craft” as the name of a category of disciplines only goes back to the late nineteenth century when it emerged partly in reaction to machine production, and partly in reaction to the fine art academies’ exclusion of the “minor,” “decorative,” or “applied” arts. The use of the term “crafts” for handmade decorative or applied arts only became widespread after 1888 when a group of London designers and craftspeople, committed to restoring the “unity” of the arts, created the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society to counter the Royal Academy’s annual show of painting and sculpture. The frontispiece the Society’s first catalogue showed personifications of “Handicraft” and “Design” holding hands, whereas the back cover graphically illustrated the desired “unity of the arts” by showing the fine arts of painting, sculpture and architecture allied with pottery, metal work, glass painting, and design.

This early moment of Arts and Crafts Arts history illustrates three philosophically relevant characteristics of craft as a category of disciplines. First, “craft” was relational from the beginning; in this case, craft and design formed a partnership vis-à-vis the fine arts. The importance of design in this equation suggests that the philosophy of art might profit from rethinking craft as part of a tripartite relation rather than as part of an art/craft dualism. This remains true, despite the fact that by the 1930s, craft and design had gone their separate ways, the design profession steadily rising in status, while handicraft production was increasingly viewed as stuck in terminal nostalgia.

A second philosophically relevant characteristic of “craft” as a set of disciplines is that it is institutional. By linking the term “craft” to a separate exhibition organization, the Exhibition Society took a first step toward institutionalizing the very division between the fine arts and crafts that they aimed at overcoming. By the mid-twentieth century, the institutionalization of the professional studio crafts had become so pronounced that there were separate craft journals, craft schools, craft galleries, and even craft museums. This situation might tempt some philosophers to take an institutional approach to defining craft, but that would be subject to the same objections usually made to the institutional definition of art.

A third philosophically relevant characteristic of craft as a set of disciplines is that it is extensional. Just as fine art had its extensional aspect (lists that included painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.), craft as a category of disciplines has also been defined through lists. The criteria for such lists have been drawn from materials (clay, fibers, wood, glass, metal), techniques (throwing, weaving, turning, blowing), and the names of functional products (pottery, furniture, jewelry, tableware), although most lists mix items from each area. As a result, such lists aren’t consistent enough for one to transform them into a compelling disjunctive definition. In fact, the art historian Peter Greenhalgh has called “the crafts” a mere “consortium of genres” with no unifying principle.[4]

But Greenhalgh is perhaps over hasty. Two possible unifying principles come to mind, one concerned with function, the other with production. The typical craft or design object has a practical or decorative purpose, whereas practical function is almost never part of the defining characteristics of what makes artworks art. Something like this seems to have been assumed by the so-called “craft-as-art” movement that began in the late 1950s, when some studio craftspeople, in quest of fine art status, not only began to imitate then-current artworld styles, but made their works blatantly non-functional, e.g., pots with holes in them, cups you couldn’t drink out of, chairs you couldn’t sit on, books you couldn’t open. Apart from the faulty logic of affirming the consequent, these anti-function efforts failed to convince most mainstream artists, art critics, and curators that studio craft was art. Although some of the resistance to art-aspiring craft works may have reflected a prejudice against “craft” materials or techniques, there were more substantive objections, having to do with the crafts’ perceived emphasis on technique, materials, or beauty over ideas and expression. As the artist Judy Chicago put it in a 1987 interview: “in art, the technique or the material is in the service of meaning … in craft, the technique or the material or the process is an end in itself.”[5] Chicago’s comment leads us back to consider whether the other type of craft concept – craft as a process of skilled making – can provide a unifying principle for the craft disciplines.

But defining craft simply as skill may not take us very far toward identifying the specificity of the craft process common to craft disciplines. In fact, “craft” in the generic sense of skill is often used interchangeably with “art” in such phrases as the “art of motorcycle maintenance,” the “art of the deal,” the “art of cooking,” the “art of medicine.” Although “art” in these expressions seems vaguely more complementary than “craft,” to sort out the semantic nuances would require an extended exercise in ordinary language analysis. Lacking time for that, I think we can say with confidence that the general idea of craft as skilled making or performing can be found as much in teaching, bricklaying, surgery, cooking, parenting, or governing, as in the traditional craft disciplines of pottery, weaving, or furniture making. Thus, if we were to define the craft process simply as skill, we would likely miss the more specific understanding of the craft process common to the craft disciplines.

For this reason I believe we should consider incorporating the idea of a “process” into the concept of a “practice,” drawing on Wittgenstein’s notion of a practice as constituted by a set of shared assumptions that inform a habitual way of doing. Such an idea of practice could operate on several levels. Thinking of a practice on the broadest level, one could consider craft, design, and art as each forming general domains of practice. At this level, just as “design” designates a set of assumptions common to the more specific practices of product, graphic and fashion design, or “art” designates a set of assumptions common to the more specific practices of sculpture, installation or performance art, so “craft” at the most general level, could be seen as designating a set of assumptions common to the more specific practices of studio craft (pottery), trade craft (carpentry) ethnic craft (mask carving,) amateur craft (quilting), and DIY (yarn bombing). At the level of these more specific practices, each practice has its own additional assumptions, conventions and histories. Thus, by using the idea of a process embedded in various levels of practice, we might be able to bring together the concept of craft as a process with aspects of the concept of craft as a category of disciplines or practices.

Unfortunately, anyone who has followed even a bit of the history of the craft disciplines, especially the internal dissentions within the studio crafts, knows that at one time or another almost every putative feature of the craft process has been questioned. Thus, the studio craft movement has been deeply divided between those still pursuing the older ideal of uniting utility with beauty and the now dominant “craft-as-art” tendency that seeks art status by throwing over function and traditional forms, or at most merely alluding to them. Given this conflicted history it might seem unlikely that we could come up with a set of assumptions shared by all the studio crafts, let alone across the broader range of craft disciplines that include the trade, ethnic, amateur and DIY crafts. And the prospect of identifying necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be craft would seem even dimmer. Even so, there are clearly many commonalities of process across the craft disciplines or practices. Therefore, I suggest we think of the assumptions common to the different craft practices as shared points of contestation. From many such flash points of craft practice, I have selected three elements that show up repeatedly in the writings of critics and practitioners of the crafts: hand, material, and skill.

The contrast of the hand made with the machine made is surely one of the most familiar characteristics associated with craft practices, yet “hand” is highly ambiguous, especially with respect to the question of tools. Apart from a few purists, most craftspeople have always used the best tools available and that now includes digital tools such as CNC milling machines and computer guided looms. Although any tool puts some distance between body and material, in some digital craft practices nearly all the handwork goes into the design phase so that digital craft makers would seem to have become primarily designers, although they retain the freedom to intervene by hand at various stages. Conversely, although the design process implies that the designer’s task ends with drawing up plans for others to execute, design practice, has often involved hand making prototypes or even producing small batch runs – something now made easier by digital fabrication.

A second contested aspect of the specificity of the craft process concerns “materials.” As we have seen, certain materials like clay, fibers, wood, glass, have historically been used as one means of identifying a set of craft disciplines. But the craft process is not defined by the type of material used, but the way materials are approached, namely, through an intensive engagement. The extent of this engagement varies from one kind of craft practice to another. We expect a thorough understanding of materials in trade crafts like masonry or carpentry, whereas, within the studio crafts of pottery or weaving, there are sharply divergent attitudes toward material. In small batch production, such as making furniture or ceramic ware, engagement with materials requires a long acquaintance that often leads to a respect for intrinsic properties. But many people from the “craft-as-art” spectrum of the studio crafts have delighted in distorting or otherwise working against the nature of materials, an attitude more typical of art practices.

I think we can get a better grasp of what is at stake in the controversies over materials in craft practice by applying the contrast between material and medium often used in discussions of the fine arts, e.g., the medium of painting is not just the material, paint, but things like brush strokes or pours along with various conventions. Similarly, it may be helpful to view craft materials as distinct from craft media, e.g., a particular kind of fiber can become part of a variety of craft media such as weaving, knotting, knitting, crocheting, quilting, embroidering, or sewing, each of which has its own techniques, expressive possibilities and formal histories. This may not be true of every form of craft practice, but it certainly applies to most studio craft and to many cases of DIY craft making. Thus, the politically oriented “craftivists” who knit “cozies” to put over statues and tanks, are articulating a statement in a historical craft medium realized in a particular fiber material.

Finally we come to skill and technique, surely at the core of any understanding of the craft process. But here again there are ambiguities and controversies. Although “skill” and “technique” are often used interchangeably, strictly speaking, technique concerns a type of procedure and skill the ability to handle it effectively. Moreover, both terms often suggest a narrow focus on manual dexterity or technical proficiency, so that it might be better to find another term, such as “mastery,” to describe skill and technique when they rise above dexterity and proficiency to become integrated with intellect and imagination. Mastery results from a long experience of mind and body working together in a medium, culminating in what is often called “tacit knowledge.” Moreover, contrary to Collingwood’s depiction of craft as the execution of a preconceived plan, the craft process at its best involves continuous feedback between initial ideas and their embodiment. And in those cases where the maker is also the designer, the craftsperson’s tacit knowledge may become the basis of spontaneous discovery and expression, since one whose mastery of technique has become second nature can more freely modify means in the service of creation, something apparent to anyone who has watched a glassblower at work. This is similar to what David Pye has called “the workmanship of risk,” which depends on the continuous use of judgment and care, in contrast to the “workmanship of certainty,” in which “the result is predetermined.”[6] Pye’s analysis shows that Collingwood’s description of the craft process is not so much wrong, as narrowly one sided since it tends to treat most craft practices as the “workmanship of certainty.”

By keeping in mind these revisions to the concept of craft as a set of disciplines and to the concept of craft as a process, we should be in a better position to reconsider the art/craft dichotomy, the idea that art and craft form mutually exclusive categories. Obviously, the exact nature of any version of a strict art/craft division will also vary according to one’s definition of art, but we need to set aside such definitional differences for the moment in order to focus on the implications of the two types of craft concept we have just examined.

Thus, the first question we should ask about any art/craft division is whether we are considering it with respect to craft as a set of disciplines or craft as a process. In the case of craft as a set of disciplines defined by materials, techniques, and object types, a once supposedly firm division between art and craft has all but disappeared. Art practice long ago opened itself up to any material, including clay and fibers, despite their strong craft associations, although it has only been since the 1980s that a few art institutions began to take in some contemporary works in craft techniques and object types. One could say that in the past decade the British art world symbolically acknowledged the final disappearance of a fixed line between art forms and craft disciplines when it awarded the Turner prize to Grayson Perry and sent Tracey Emin to the Venice Biennale. But the acceptance of “craft” materials, techniques and object types by a post-disciplinary art world does not automatically entail that the division between art and craft with respect to either function or process has also been eliminated.

Since the trade, ethnic, amateur/DIY, and some studio crafts typically make objects that serve practical functions, whereas most high art forms do not, practical function might seem a possible criterion of division. But even though practical function may not be a condition for being high art, function is not excluded from art or we would have to deny art status to most Renaissance painting or to most non-Western art as well as to things like contemporary commemorative sculpture. Thus practical function per se cannot be the basis of an art/craft dichotomy. Yet someone might argue that there is a principled difference between art and craft based the priority of ideas or of aesthetic form over function in art as compared to craft. For example, Stephen Davies claims that despite non-Western art’s ritual and practical functions, it “remains distinct from mere craft” (italics his) since “mere craftworks lack aesthetic properties, or are not made to have them, or are made to have them in a manner that is incidental or trivial with respect to their intended function.”[7] But what Davies describes is only a difference of degree concerning aesthetic properties vis-à-vis function and does not establish a categorical division between art and craft. Moreover, a distinction of degree between (functional) crafts and (non-functional) high arts would only apply to the art-craft relational axis, whereas functional craft has an equally important relation to design – especially since design provides most of the practical objects that make up our everyday environment.

Having failed to find a basis for a hierarchical art/craft dichotomy in function, we turn to the question of whether the craft process provides the basis for such a division. At first glance the craft process looks like a more promising way to establish a sharp art/craft polarity, given the absence of the three contested elements of the craft process in a good deal of contemporary art practice. In the case of the hand, artists are no longer required to make an object of any kind, and if they do, they need not use their own hands, but can hire outside fabricators. As for materials, artists have long been free to embody their ideas in any material or no material at all, and if they do use materials they need no close knowledge of them or respect for their properties. Finally, skill or mastery of technique is clearly an optional aspect of artistic practice in our “post studio” era when some art schools have even embraced “deskilling,” the idea that most skills can be picked up as needed.

Yet, if none of the three contested characteristics of craft practice is a condition for being art today, it is equally true that none are excluded from art practice. Even so, I suspect that the acceptance of Grayson Perry’s and Tracey Emin’s work by high art institutions may have been helped by the fact that his technique in pottery and hers in appliqué is somewhat faulty, thereby underlining the fact that their craft techniques are merely vehicles for the expression of ideas. Of course, artists like Jeff Koons, who often seek high production values in their works, can avoid any risk of the craft label by having their pieces fabricated by others. But even artists who display superb technique need not jeopardize their art status, as illustrated by the work of Martin Puryear, who has been able to get away with devoting much of his career to masterfully hand making beautiful wooden forms that sometimes allude to function. Arthur Danto has argued that what keeps Puryear’s works from being instances of “(mere) craftsmanship” instead of sculpture, is that “the craft … is subordinated to the production of spirit” rather than an end in itself.[8] Danto’s point may look same as Judy Chicago’s claim that in craft, technique and materials are ends in themselves; but by adding the qualifier “mere,” Danto, like Davies, implies that there may be craft disciplines or practices in which the craft is not an end in itself. In fact we have already described such a version of the craft process in which the mastery of technique and materials rises to the level of tacit knowledge, affording the craftsperson the freedom for spontaneous creation and expression. Moreover, this kind of mastery or “workmanship of risk” is far more widespread among most types of craft practice than the virtuosic demonstration of process as an end in itself. Since the subordination of the craft process to meaning in both the high arts and the crafts is a matter of degree, here again, there can be no sharp division between art and craft but only a continuum. Danto suggests something similar when he says that art’s post-disciplinary pluralism has in effect erased the line between art and craft so that there is no longer any basis for an “invidious distinction.”[9]

Thus, the notion of a continuum in the subordination of process to meaning suggests that there could be a relative and non-invidious distinction between art and craft practices. For example, there are modes of trade and studio craft practice that seek a balance between technique and meaning, practical function and aesthetics, just as at the other end of the spectrum there are art practices that ignore, downplay, or aggressively deny technique or aesthetic pleasure. Yet the craft practices that combine a concern for mastery of materials with a dedication to serving ordinary needs do not subordinate meaning to technique and function, but embody such everyday meanings as comfort, support, nourishment, care in furnishings and adornments for daily life. Such craft practices parallel the practices of those contemporary designers who engage in small batch production, and both craft and design works of this kind are sometimes appropriately grouped together under the label “applied art.”

Taken together, the preceding analyses suggest that it may be time to abandon the art/craft dichotomy and begin to think of the terms craft, design, and (high) art as designating three kinds of overlapping practices within the broad spectrum of all the arts. Obviously, the various proposals outlined here require a great deal more development and justification. In any case, I believe that what Adorno says of art in the opening line of Aesthetic Theory, applies to craft today: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning [craft] is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, nor its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.”[10]

1. Carol Kino, “The Art Form That Dare Not Speak its Name,” The New York Times, March 30, 2005, G8.

2. Janis Jeffries, “Loving Attention: An Outburst of Craft in Contemporary Art.” Extra/Ordinary: Craft in Contemporary Art. Ed. Maria Elena Buszek. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 222-242.

3. Elisa Auther, String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

4. Peter Greenhalgh, The Persistence of Craft: The Applied Arts Today. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. 2002. 1.

5. Cited in Auther, String, Felt, Thread, p. 152.

6. David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968, 7-8.

7. Stephen Davies, “Non-Western Art and Art’s Definition.” Theories of Art Today. Ed. Nöel Carroll. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. 207-08.

8. Arthur Danto, Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays & Aesthetic Meditations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. 293-94.

9. Arthur Danto, “Philosophizing with a Hammer: Gary Knox Bennett and Contemporary Art.” Gary Knox-Bennett in Oakland, GKB. Ed. Ursula Ilse-Neuman. New York: American Craft Museum, 2001. 10.

10. Theodore W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

The present essay is a condensed and altered form of a much longer article, “‘Blurred Boundaries?’ Rethinking the Concept of Craft and its Relation to Art and Design,” which includes a comprehensive bibliography, and will appear in Wily-Blackwell’s on-line journal Philosophy Compass sometime this year.

2012 © Larry Shiner

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