Craft and Art Envy (1986)
New Work, #27, (Autumn 1986) pp. 28 - 33. Delivered as a lecture at the Second Pilchuck Conference, Stanwood, Washington. August 1985.
Is craft art? Is art craft? Are they interchangeable? Can one become the other? Are the differences non-existent and comparisons invidious? Or will the twain never meet? These anxious uncertainties muddle every consideration of craft esthetics. I think they are false issues, misleading questions met by ambiguous answers.
The root of the confusion is our odd refusal to take art for what it is. Though art is material it is entirely human. Of all things physical it best fits Paul's phrase "labor of love." It is as close to us as any thing can be, the most personal, the most intimate, the most to do with feelings which represent the best of ourselves to ourselves. We make much of art, but in the wrong way. We make it too important, an object of reverence rather than of simple feeling. We have sanctified it, ritualized it, buried it in huge mausoleums, torn it away from life. We forget how fragile it is, how it could wither and blow away if unsupported by the life force of human feeling.
The explosive growth of all the arts in the last forty years does not mean that art is "forever," like the proverbial diamond. The habit of art can rise up and live and die just like any organism. It is highly evolved, complex and widespread, but it is also fragile and vulnerable, like the woolly mammoth or the blue whale. It is just as dependent on money, politics and the whims of fashion as any animal is on food and water and weather. Within the broad cycles of art more specialized forms are always at risk. I recently read about the rise and fall of what we call "classical music." If the account was accurate it was a lifetime of only a few hundred years - a mere blip in the great scheme of things. This can easily happen to the other arts, to painting and sculpture, and, dare I say it, to art glass, still in its infancy. Art and its several forms are as delicate as summer butterflies. If we want to sustain it we must treat it with kindness, not idolatry. We must cherish our traditions, not shut them into dead history. If we take art out of experience we will lose touch with it. If we make too much of art we will destroy it. And it is precisely the excessive veneration of what we call "art" which spoils and afflicts so much of what we call "craft."
I call art a "habit" because that's what it is. We invented it and we choose to keep it going, because we want to, not because we must. Art is defined not by properties - by four edges and a frame, or smooth marble on a pedestal - but by something we do, a habit we have. Human beings persist in making things which we direct ourselves to regard with the esthetic attitude. Art proper, art as art, is that which is met and evaluated solely on its own merits, on its intrinsic apparent characteristics, apart from any criteria or specific usefulness, aside from familiarity or identifiability, without recourse to condition or measure, in a necessarily intuitive manner. I call this the "unconditional esthetic." Anything can be seen this way. It is a matter of choice. All it takes is a clearly apprehensible, relatively permanent object available to some human perception. This is not the definition of art, it is the defining situation for it.
Entering this situation, coming before this attitude, we have nominal art. Nominal art is what we have chosen to call art, things like paintings and sculptures and the like. The application of the esthetic attitude to these or other objects yields actual, or, more precisely, actualized, art. Nominal and actual. It is an essential distinction. Failure to maintain it dooms most discussion of esthetics to terminal befuddlement before they start.
Here's an example. We see a couple standing before a painting in a museum. They disagree about it. We hear them say the following:
Man: I think that is a great painting.
Woman: I think it is terrible. I don't even think it is art. Is that what they call art?
Man: Of course it's art. This is an art museum, isn't it?
Woman: If this is an art museum, they shouldn't let junk like this in.
Man: OK, maybe you don't like it, but you can't say it isn't art.
Woman: I wouldn't call it art. I'd call it garbage.
Man: Well, that's just your opinion. I say it's art and good art at that.
Woman: I think it's garbage and I wouldn't have it in my house.
There is the tangle of nominal and actual in a nutshell. Who was right? They both were. They were arguing at cross purposes. The man was right because the painting was made, sold and presented as art. It was what we call art. It was nominal art. Nominal art is hopeful art, art waiting to be actualized by human experience. The lady thinks it is not art but junk. Let's say she has a good eye. She's right, too. She appraised it and it didn't pass the test. Bad art is the most singularly useless thing on earth. She made it actual. It is junk. Nominally, it is art. Actually, it is junk. And it is entirely possible for the reverse to be true, for something to be nominally junk, and actually art. It is entirely a matter of definition and appraisal.
Anything can come before the unconditional esthetic. Nothing is imprisoned by category. If we choose a painting because the colors match the sofa it is, for us, decoration. If we hold the door open with a piece of sculpture it is a doorstop. The nominal is very fluid. On the other hand, we can take a decoration or a doorstop to the museum and exhibit it and call it art. It may or may not pass the scrutiny of the unconditional esthetic. Some things can; some things can't. "Craft" is a nominal category. Any "craft" can be presented and appraised as art, just like anything else. What it becomes on experience, on "actualization," is another matter. That's the interesting part; that's what we can argue about.
If we look at the recent upsurge in the visual arts we see that art, which has always been high-class, has now gone big-time. This double impetus and the market-driven increase of nominal art, of what we accept as art, has given rise to a condition which I call, with apologies to Freud, "art envy." The urge to be "art" is showing up all over the place in all kinds of manufactured objects. Things which evolved for centuries through highly specialized adaption to particular utility are being eaten away by the corrosive envy of art. No longer can a useful thing be merely a thing with a use, a bottle or a soup can or a chair or a building. It must be fiddled with and altered and adjusted into art. Art-making is a specialized craft. It has evolved for centuries, like pot-making or boat-building, in pursuit of its best form. And, like pot-making or boat-building, art has assumed its own peculiar integrity, its own set of materials, forms and rules. But because art is held so high the doors to the museums and galleries are crammed with things dressing up as art and clamoring for the "art" label. With the label comes prestige and money and a comforting and profitable easing of esthetic standards. Craft is at the head of this line, ready and willing to submit to the unconditional esthetic, ready to be "art" and accept all the incumbent benefits.
Should it? I don't think so. Craft usually suffers by aspiring to be "art," either in the making or the appraising. Is this just another snotty put-down of craft by an artist? No, not at all. I could never disparage craft. I have too much love and respect for it. On the contrary, I am arguing for its integrity. My quarrel is with the misapplication of values, with the invidious notion that if it isn't art it isn't much of anything. The urge to be the best is always admirable; the urge to make everything "art" is perverse. It usually leads to bastard forms, forms which don't amount to much as craft or art. Art envy, in craft and in architecture and in any of the other media - movies come to mind - is misplaced and destructive. Craft does not need to be art; it finds its highest form as craft. If it happens to be art too, actual art, actualizable as art, that's fine, but it is incidental. When craft aims at art it aims down, not up; it aims for a fall.
These are not provable assertions, of course. They are conclusions drawn from long experience with craft and art. Let me recount a few examples from that experience.
Some years ago I had friends who collected scrimshaw. Scrimshaw, roughly defined, is whale bone and whale ivory carved and engraved by 19th century whalemen. It seemed awfully peculiar to me at first. Through circumstance I learned about it and became involved professionally, buying and selling and advising collectors. Eventually I wrote a book about scrimshaw which is so voluminous I can't find a publisher for it. I'm fascinated by the way scrimshaw changed in my eyes from odd-looking worked-over bits of natural history into an intricately differentiated world of engaging objects. The more I learned the more I realized that these objects were guiding my taste, not the other way around. And the more they guided me the more l saw that my customary taste, an artist's taste, a taste which customarily employs the unconditional esthetic, was often inapplicable and often beside the point. I came to see that connoisseurship in scrimshaw leads away from the pure esthetic and toward a perception of a kind of authenticity, not just genuineness, as opposed to fakery, but qualities which spoke of the highly refined handcrafting skills of the early whalers. So often this authenticity came up in plain workaday things: a ropewinder with whale bone gears, a whaleboat's water bucket with a delicately fashioned whale bone bail, a simple, early ivory candlestand turned in the restrained Nantucket manner, a unique set of primitive whalebone doorknobs taken from a house in New Bedford. These modest, utilitarian objects were, I determined, the apogee of a scrimshaw connoisseur's delight, and I scoffed at collectors who went for scrimshaw "art," for elaborate set pieces and ornate, embellished engraving. Though a good eye for form was certainly helpful, looking at scrimshaw only formally, with the unconditional esthetic, would have kept me from cultivating my taste in terms of the character of this interesting folk craft.
My second example is ceramics, which I know less about but have made, both as craft and as art. I've always loved pots, so much so that I'm probably lucky I never had enough money to seriously collect them. I studied pot-making with Bea Landolt. Though I never got too good at it I certainly got a clear intuitive feel for the materials and what they can do. Clay is wonderful to work with, and glazes are endlessly fascinating. Later I made clay relief pieces, clay "paintings," if you will, with Margie Hughto in Syracuse and with the Walshes at Clayworks in Manhattan. So I've worked with good craftsmen making good craft and with good artists making good art using precisely the same "craft" materials. Once again I saw that craft and art are esthetic apples and oranges, that appraising either with the eye for the other is, so to speak, fruitless.
This was brought home to me one day several years ago, at a time when I was very high on Japanese pottery. I showed an artist friend with an excellent eye for art some pots by Hamada and Leach. He was unimpressed. They were "just pots" to him. He thought the decoration was pleasant but dull. I was taken aback for a moment, but when I looked with his eyes, with the unconditional esthetic, sure enough, I saw what he meant. Then I switched back to the conditional esthetic, the esthetic demanded by objects, and once again I saw great pots, invigorating things, things I would have given anything to have made myself. I gave up showing pots to artists, and silently reflected that Hamada and Leach would not have thought highly of my clay paintings, with their cracked surfaces and flaking glazes.
With my third example I'll get down to glass tacks. (That's called "vitreous humor." Sorry.) As you may know, I was asked here as a critical outsider, as an artist and a writer on art with some experience with craft but little with glass. I've looked at a lot of glass in the meantime, and read a few things, and I think I've gotten more of a feel for the craft. But I remain a critical outsider, and I suspect that many of you will take exception to what l am about to say.
I've always had mixed feelings about glass, fascinated by colors frozen in transparency, haunted by faint memories of long-ago taws and aggies and my grandmother's paperweights and Tiffany Favrile knickknacks, turned off by the cold brittleness and the treacherous edge. Glass is very aloof. Its demands are more particular and more limiting than those of other materials. It is heavy, fragile and unsupportive. It is hard to work. When it is plastic enough to play with it is too hot to touch. When it is cold enough to lay your hands on it, it resists manipulation, resists cutting, joining, gouging, piecing, editing, hand-molding and shaping. It has a disconcerting insistence on maintaining a literal wholeness. It forces its practitioners to plan well ahead and work fast with a dangerous, rapidly hardening red-hot glob or to slave away at an obdurate and unforgiving chunk of inert matter.
Yet, as we all know, glass is such gorgeous stuff. Always the icy loveliness; always the brittle intractability. These material facts are all-important, because what a material is tells us what can be done with it, and what can be done with it is what it will become. The very challenge, of course, is part of the appeal of the craft.
When Bill Warmus asked me to give this talk he sent me issues 4 and 5 of New Glass Review. As you know, this is the catalog of the yearly juried slide review of new glass held by The Corning Museum of Glass. I was struck by several things in these. For one, the photography is excellent. Glass makers really know how to photograph their objects. So I realized that at least some of what I was seeing owed as much to the art of the photographer as to that of the glass maker. Another impression was the extreme contrast between the two collections of glass objects. It was as if differing sets of criteria had been issued beforehand. Presumably each group of judges had a very different take on what was best. This may reflect the unsettled esthetic climate of a relatively new art form.
Finally, and this was a personal reaction, and one that gave me more pause, there was my feeling of relieved surprise when I came upon the photograph of the three machine-blown crystal bean pots from Libbey-Owens in New Glass Review 4. They delivered the refreshing shock of a streaker dashing across the stage in the third hour of a Wagner opera. These simple, unassuming, purely utilitarian pots, though probably not "great craft," pointed up all the feckless straining going on all around them.
So much art envy! Many of the pieces frankly imitated current art styles. Some were actually painted. Some were only partly glass. None of these, I felt, was successful. Why? Because, as always, my eye told me so. But if I had to take a verbal stab I'd give two closely related tentative reasons.
First, artists who want to paint and sculpt usually do just that, using materials appropriate for painting and sculpting. Glass craftsmen who hold on to the security of craft and reach out to impose extraneous "art" forms and materials manifest a built-in conflict, a dissatisfaction with and disrespect for their chosen craft. It shows up in the objects they make.
Second, when glass adopts the forms of an alien art, an art which has evolved for centuries by creative manipulation of very different materials, the glass itself becomes a liability. It must struggle to assert itself. It protests, if you will, and the protests are visible in the work.
There is, in the world of art glass, a spreading blight of the "cute/funky", that long-time provincial arts-and-crafts style which has now invaded large art centers such as New York like the Visigoths invaded Rome. I'm sure you've all seen plenty of it. If craft follows art, as it seems to, then craft is in for a veritable plague of this stuff. We see little glass houses and altars, nameless threatening bristling blobs, agonized floating faces, mock-primitive totemic detritus, leaping, menacing animals, posturing figures and disembodied limbs, all done up in self-consciously tasteless color and bad drawing and titled with obscure daffiness.
It is called "content." There is a distressing uniformity to it all, and worse, it is a world-wide uniformity. Because these things are so easy to make and so easy to comprehend it has become an international style. They tell me it is "fun" and that l am just an old fogy, but there is something about "fun" when it is undertaken by a hundred thousand deadly serious artists which does turn a bit sour around the edges. And the style is absolutely incompatible with the character of glass.
On the other hand, stained glass, though ostensibly susceptible to all the afflictions troubling sculptured glass as well as painting, seems to have maintained its independence rather well. Stained glass has its own peculiar working methods and the advantage of a long tradition. It has the integrity of an evolved type. It looks to me like a clear separate species of glass craft which will evolve along its own track. I find most of it rather dull, but that, I believe, is less the fault of the medium than the artisans. The potential is there.
Finally, there are the "simple-form" pieces: blown and cut vessels, massed abstract forms, assembled sections of glass, and the like. These strike my interest. At their worst they are stolid and banal, or burdened with florid color and over-worked surface. At their best they are very good indeed. Much of the best glass strikes my taste in unexpected ways. Because I have found that the best craft almost always makes the most of the given character of its materials I expected to like the pieces that were the most "glasslike" - smooth, liquid-looking, attenuated and transparent, with rich runny translucent colors and plenty of twists and facets for light to play in. It didn't work out that way, and I don't know why.
Time and time again, as I looked in these catalogs and other books and at actual glass the work my taste recommends is restrained, almost "anti-glass," like some Lalique and the more severe examples of Art Nouveau and Deco, wherein form is less liquid than geometric, less attenuated than compact, the color often sumptuous but mellow and uncomplicated, the transparency often veiled by color density or frosting. Does this say something about the "hard" nature of glass as opposed to the "liquid?" Is this the "right" way for glass to be, or does it reflect my relative lack of experience? Do I unconsciously lay on the unconditional esthetic and miss the point? Or has the Picasso of art glass not yet come along? It only takes one genius, don't forget, to give the lie to what I say, or to generations of art critics, for that matter. It happens all the time.
Can glass be an "art" material?1 Should it be? Without that genius to show us, through glass itself, we can only vent our bias. I'd say probably not. Art materials are best when they are easy to manipulate and innately plain. Glass is too intractable and too beautiful. This is the nature of glass, and this is the strength of glass. Glass must insist on its own native integrity and lead its practitioners along that path, away from "art" and the envy of art, always holding the pride of glass within the craft. There is so much here in glass, so much yet to be found. If I seem hard on the craftsmen it is because I see them betraying glass with alien alliances, deserting it to chase the illusion of the sanctity of art. Only by accepting the natural conditional esthetic of craft can glass be unconditionally fine as craft. And only by evolving as craft, in terms of its own innate character, can glass or any material be fashioned into objects which stand up to the unconditional esthetic.
1. Maybe it can. My subsequent experience with Dale Chihuly's work has already modified this view somewhat. Also, interestingly, amid all the flak I got after I gave this talk out at Pilchuck, Mr. Chihuly's simple comment was refreshingly to the point: "I just make the best glass I can," he said. "I don't care what you call it."