A Disaster for the Crafts

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Objects: USA was an exhibition at the Smithsonian that opened in the fall of 1969.  It was a  comprehensive collection of  "Works by Artist-Craftsmen in Ceramic, Enamel, Glass, Metal, Plastic, Mosaic, Wood and Fiber"

Art Critic Barbara Rose in New Yorker Magazine (June 1972) reviewed the show characterizing  it "a disaster for the crafts".  She writes: 

"The individual, divorced from the community of artisans, taking from fine art the license of self expression, amusement and occasional formal interest, is not capable of participating in a genuine craft tradition.  Objects:  USA, consequently, is a collection of absurdist fantasies produced by individual egos striving for self-expression as unwilling to assume any role of social responsibility as the fine artist."

I couldn't agree with her more and the same is true over 40 years later.  This was all part of the twentieth-century trend of craft being almost entirely consumed by the industrial revolution and the little craft that remained lost its identity as it struggled to enter the more prestigious art world.  Curators and collectors and craftspersons themselves, with the best of intentions and reverence for the work of craftspersons, attempted to "elevate" the objects and their makers to the level of fine artists and their works.  There were many attempts, some more successful than others, to promote craft so that it would command the prices and recognition that artists received.  Objects: USA  was one of the most well produced efforts to this end.  The problem here is that craft and art are not nuanced shades of each other as often described but entirely different things.   Craft objects have utility.  Art objects do not.  Craft is affordable and accessible to the many.  Art is or aspires to be for the consumption of the aristocratic class.  Craft is not self-consciously made and is usually unsigned.  Art is a conscious act of individual expression and often loses value if unsigned or unattributed.  

"As long as craft objects are useless, they are categorized more closely related to contemporary painting and sculpture than to the craft movements of the past."

-Barbara Rose

In many cases the craft world was surrendering the defining values of craft in order to position their products in the much more lucrative art world.  While this practice proved commercially successful for a few who made the transition from craftsman to artist, they left their values behind and the movement dramatically changed the meaning of the word craft in America where individual expression is so highly valued.  Craft museums and schools now offer exhibitions and classes in what is unmistakably art, lacking in most or all of the qualities of craft.  The traditional materials and tools of craft are present but we are at a loss to differentiate them from art.  Don't get me wrong, art is great but I like craft too...wherever it is.