Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thinking Outside the Coffin

This is my keynote from the BeCon Conference...sadly without all the images as that would probably take the rest of my life.
It is similar, but not the same, as my talk last spring at the Art Alliance (reviewed here) and it also draws from a post on ending media prejudice from this blog...

Thinking Outside the Coffin

Let’s start with the obnoxious assumption that “Art” is a Higher Pursuit than “Craft”
In the high stakes world of Fine Art, Craft, as a field is, sometimes secretly, but often openly, reviled.

Click to show the rest of article

How many times have I heard critics, academics, curators, collectors, dealers and yes, even artists, for goodness sakes, publicly trotting out their unquestioned, and insufferable belief that Craft is lesser than and lower than “Art”? Too many.

“Craft” lacks the intellectual and philosophical panache of “Fine Art”—it can go as far as being seen as less intelligent—less important, and less serious–at best, a quaint and harmless pastime that results in free sweaters or maybe a job coopering at a reconstructed village. At worst, it is perceived to be retardaire and anachronistic. In this digital age, why go backwards? Art, by comparison, is seen as sophisticated, enlightening, profound, relevant and wise. Prices, respect and status follow suit. Once money enters the picture, there are more devious and capricious reasons those in power might want to protect these boundaries and defend their piece of the pie, surprise, surprise. Although it may appear as if “anything goes” in terms of what gets called art; the fact is that the Fine Arts must very narrowly define their practice in order to maintain their mystique, their market share and its stature as a revered activity. You can test this out by trying to get yourself a gallery show. You will find out pretty quick, that your art, probably isn’t their kind of art. So the definition of art, to some extent depends on it being the high end of something. Craft suffers the fallout .

This brings me to the odious, ignorant prejudice against certain materials and certain methods. When I have referred to myself as a craftsperson, people have assumed I have some problem with my self-esteem—on the contrary—I am very proud to identify as such. I was once uninvited from a speaking gig because the painting department head heard I worked in glass (she never even bothered to look at the work)! When I got the Guggenheim award, I went to the party. People asked me what I did—on more than one occasion, I watched them shrink in horror from me as if glass might be some horrid contagion. There are endless examples, I’m sure you all have stories.

Critics, academics, curators, collectors, dealers and ignorant artists: get a clue. Mediums are media and technique is simply a means to an end. They are the materials and processes that are in between the artist and the object being created...you know, the thing that really matters? This type of media prejudice is especially ridiculous in light of the fact that artists are free to work with anything, from diamonds (Damian Hirst) to feces (Chris Ofili)—so why anyone should disdain, say, ceramic is a real mystery. Why care if the substance is glass, ceramics, oil paint, paper, poop or bubble gum? Why is carving marble more artistic than carving wood? Is there a quality in oil paint that makes it inherently artistic, some quality of glass that makes it crafty?
Isn’t the entire point what’s being done with it? Isn’t the point the experience it confers on the audience or users? It is just as wrongheaded as assuming something is art because it is paint on canvas. As if that offered some kind of bulletproof protection against being lousy!

In a related theme, devoting oneself exclusively to a singular branch of material knowledge (i.e. being a “glass artist” or a “clay artist” etc) is seen to be case of idiocy, confused priorities or unhealthy obsession. This is different than the Fine Arts as it is currently the trend (and its only a trend!) to believe that the materials and techniques should serve the idea and not vice versa . This deliberate and willful elevation of material above all else comes seemingly at the expense of more profound content, although why that should be accepted as self-evident beats me. Why is a dialogue between the maker and their medium and process not ideal?

Another thing I hear a lot is “Craft and Art are the same or have merged
First off—other than cold hard cash, champagne and limos, why on earth would we want to be the same as or to merge with Fine Arts? Have you seen the conditions of the Fine Arts these days? Fine Arts are in a crisis. Have you not noticed that the decades of modernist deprivation has starved the field of most of its claim to relevance? That the relentless “purification” has led to so much less materiality and aesthetic impact that it has essentially castrated itself? Removed it from its source of power? Why would we merge with them?
Is this what you want for our field???
And yet, how many times have I heard someone make this claim—that “craft” and “art” have merged or even more bizarre, “the same thing”? Given the attitudes described above, how so? It is ever more obvious that the two practices are worlds apart in terms of attitude, output and methodology. Whether this is a result of nature or culture is debatable, but regardless, this is how things are. In the Fine Arts the end justifies the means and in craft, the means justifies the end. Art for art’s sake is beholden to nothing and no one while craft, for better or worse is the polar opposite, it responds to and is responsible to all. An artist is someone whose work is informed almost entirely by ideas and a craftsperson is one whose work is informed largely by process, material or functionality.

But no matter how much we may wish it otherwise, craft is seen as the lower. Now why is that? Darned bad luck? An unfortunate historical coincidence? A conspiracy by evil marketing overloads? Lets look at the historical reasons two words diverged and one became “lower” and the other, “higher”.
The terms “craft”, “applied arts” and “decorative arts” are relatively recent terms. In western culture, before the Renaissance, artists and artisans were more or less anonymous. Its not like “everyone was considered an artist back then”—on the contrary—more like “everyone was considered a craftsman”. So those who wish to elevate Craft aren’t trying to get something back but establish it for the first time.
When painting and sculpture became one of the Liberal Arts, the practitioners became academics, scholars and philosophers, if not brand names, rock stars and geniuses. They became exceptional and not the same as toilers and yeomen. They were valued for their brilliant ideas, and who manufactured them mattered less.

The next blow came with the Industrial Revolution, which necessitated a rethinking of craft owing to mechanization and mass production. This codified the institutional separations that arose in the 20th C, in part to the G.I. Bill and the idea of higher vocational training. There are still separate departments of Sculpture, Metals/Jewelry, Wood/Furniture and Glass, Industrial Design in art schools. Similarly museums have different curatorial departments that often break down on similar lines of applied versus fine art. There are also museums, magazines and collectors devoted exclusively to Craft or to Fine Art. Unless these institutions are dismantled, someone is claiming a pedagogical, if not categorical difference—however they may define it.

Lately we have suffered the end of nature and the death of God. Yikes—talk about nihilism! It is a great paradox that the more we dominate nature, the more we revere “the primitive”, and nowhere is this more evident than in than arts. As if somehow crudeness, awkwardness and ineptitude were somehow more authentic than cultivation and finesse. Having almost annihilated all of nature, yeah it would be a great idea to try to honor it for a change. Ironically, it ends up being OK to make baldly fecal art as long as you can claim to be some kind of shaman! But, of course, god forbid you should desire to transform clay into something other than a excretal gray blob. That would be artificial, concealing, not ‘true to nature”; as over processed as a TV dinner.

But before I go any further, I want to say that not all separations and hierarchies are bad. Not even ones in the art world—not even ones that delegate one sector of making to be extra special and elite and another to be crap. When navigating this world one must take into account the difference between something that represents a pinnacle of human expressive accomplishment and something mundane. We can’t level all objects into a vast all-inclusive category of “art”, “craft” or even “human production” wherein the Sistine Chapel ceiling would be the equivalent of a Dixie cup. Saying craft is the same as art blends a lot of different intents and objects into an indistinguishable mush. To do so is to generalize to the point of meaninglessness. It is truly a case of apples and oranges. There are things made to be treasured and things made to be trashed, things made to contain spirits and things made to contain spirit and sometimes there are things made to contain spirits that also contain spirit!
And elevating a spork to the equivalent of a silver spoon to avoid being racist, classist or any other “ist” is insulting to the intelligence in addition to depriving people of their autonomy to dream and aspire. There is a problem in that dispatching with hierarchies affects one’s ability to enjoy life. How can we recognize good without acknowledging the bad? Yeah, its unfair, but isn’t it worth it so we can actively pursue the good and avoid the bad? To pretend all objects are the same in order to "level the playing field” is to ensure that everyone loses the game. Someone of a paranoid nature might find this the basis of a conspiracy to anesthetize the masses into an army of obedient consumer zombies. We love Wal-Mart!
The fact is, we need to set aside some term for our highest; most exalted, sacrosanct expressions—even if we can’t agree on them. Like “beauty”, and “love”, “Art” is one of those abstractions that can only be defined subjectively, if at all. But, as the paragon of aesthetic experiences it is no less real for lack of defining—as witnessed in clich├ęs like: “I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it”. We need to look up to something, to feel awe. But that the notion should be predicated on media or technique or even form (like “vessels”) is completely ludicrous.

So what’s the deal? What is the relationship of art to craft?
A quote attributed to Louis Pasteur (which he never said but should have) is “There’s no difference between applied science and pure science, just good science and bad science.” Just change “science” to “art” and you get the drift. So, if we must dispatch with stuff, can it just be the crap in any medium instead of, oh, say the whole category known as “Craft” or “Glass art”?
It seems that the best way to conceptualize this morass is as follows: In the field of human creative, artistic endeavors we have a range of activities and a range of results from those activities. From highly the highly inventive and original to the most repeated of historical and traditional forms and methods. From the most banal to the most exquisite and unique. From the most refined to the most crude. From the highly individual expressions to the most collective. From things engineered for display, decoration, to the most exaltedly spiritual and contemplative to the pragmatically useful. Sometimes these things overlap and sometimes they hover at the poles. None of these give any indication of how far up or down on the art scale they might be.

Material, technique and form are neutral. All are born with the equal potential to be that super special thing we call art—despite material, technique or associated tradition. All have the potential to scale the heights and or, conversely to bomb and become trash. Sometimes the maker’s intent actually impacts what they make—as in, sometimes a self-professed artist actually succeeds in making art. But it’s by no means a foregone conclusion—despite all the self-identified artists out there! Yes—a cup can be “as good as” a painting—a claim made ever easier by painting growing ever more vapid and awful. Some craft is art, no doubt about it; but not all; not even a lot. So yes, in terms of potential, art and craft are the same even if the institutions don’t recognize it.; as Louis Pasteur,famously didn't actually say (but, damn, I sure wish he had!): "There's no such thing as pure science versus applied science--only good science and bad science.

However, this does all of nothing to address the deeper issue. Why is there so much CRAFT ANXIETY? And what can and should we do about it? How did history come to see Craft as doomed to be the worser of two polarities? Why does work that emphasizes technique, utilizes certain materials and takes on traditional form earn less money and engender less respect? It seems so arbitrary and weird. Why not, say, more respect?? There are several main reasons, which are rather intertwined. The physical utility of craft objects, the physical materiality of them and the physical hand skills needed to make them are all in disrepute.
There are money and class issues, the sense that craft is obsolete, body dysmorphia, the fallout from the Fine Art’s identity crisis and, naturally, the entropy that prevents anything from changing course mid-stream.

Body Dysmorphia
Let’s start with body dysmorphia because I think, as a culture, we suffer from a nefarious ambivalence towards our bodies.
We are often uncomfortable with the intimacy of close-up encounters. We have entire codes of behavior devoted to when touching is appropriate and when it’s not.
There are times we prefer to keep an emotional, if not physical distance from that which we value. It’s no coincidence that art is literally untouchable, that which we touch, we taint.
And if you only love someone only for his or her body, well then, you are a sleaze!

We can traverse our feelings about objects from head to toe or, as it were, from sacred to profane. We place abstractions like beauty, love and truth far above fleshy, carnal or coarse material. There’s matter and what really matters, after all! Everyday objects are lower than people (and art)—so its OK to touch them, abuse them, exploit them. Our bodies act as a metaphorical hierarchy-- the mind is not only higher symbolically, but conveniently located nearer the heavens and at a significant distance above the feet, which must contact the dirt of the earth. The head is also far enough from our privates to imagine them as having a (somewhat mischievous) will of their own. Consuming and processing food and its attendant waste, sex and other basic survival needs remind us that our bodies are messy and make embarrassing, uncontrollable and noises, smells, fluids and demands. Most of the stuff that is in us we ardently hope stays in there and the rest we are anxious to flush away (with the notable exception of babies). Even worse? Bodies die and rot.
Craft items are frequently defined as those of a utilitarian nature, having to do with bodily function. Reflecting their usage, the forms craft objects take are often a reminder of our physicality—they are body-like—as in vessels. Clothing, and furniture have arms and legs (but no heads!).
Plenty of people just want to wish our nasty corporeality away and the associated devices and objects are similarly subject to our loathing. Handwork and technique are a little too easily separated from “The Life of the Mind”. Its not crafts fault we are scared and humiliated by our bodies—and it’s no surprise that is scapegoated.

Another fallout from its close association with bodies is that Craft is subject to a fear of idolatry. Perhaps we worship truth, love, beauty and maybe even God, but usually not cups and plates. This is the difference between false idols and “real gods”. One is just a thing...to imbue it with extra power is perverted, superstitious and ludicrous. Material objects can seem fetishistic, easily commodifiable and thus all about consumption and unhealthy appetites. Objects also get old and worn...just like we do, and ohmigosh, there’s another unpleasant reminder of our mortality! And then what? Toss it so you can get a shiny new one! Fill up the landfills with more junk . Rightly, we associate our materialistic tendencies with greed, waste and environmental devastation. Concepts don’t have that problem. They are exalted and ethereal and make us look immortal and morally righteous.

Money, Class, Labor and Skill Issues
As if bodies and their abundant issues aren’t enough, there’s more to worry about! Let’s start with the easy one, money and value. Craft suffers from the same problem anything that is produced in multiples does in the arts. Rare and inaccessible generally equals more valuable. People pay more for what’s extraordinary and hard to come by. Craft objects tend to be small, used by hand and used by everybody in everyday life. Therefore, they are also going to be necessarily more common, available and accessible. Owing to their frequent use and, often mindless interaction, they rarely seem extraordinary. Never mind how one’s life might be improved by not taking every little moment for granted (as the Japanese glorify with their tea ceremony and their aesthetic of wabi-sabi.)

Perhaps more damning is the fact that it’s not too far a leap of the imagination from throwing pots to the manual labor of mucking the stalls. Many people dislike physical labor. The ruling class doesn’t get sweaty or get their hands dirty, end of story. Labor and material reminds us a little too much of.... slavery...either in the standard sense of horrific exploitation of others or in the sense of slavish devotion—unhealthy obsession (as I mentioned with regard to dedicating one’s self to one medium). There is a big issue of service. Art answers to no one—but craft is often about utility and thus is bound to us, serving our needs. And that makes us superior, no? Cups serve us, not the other way around—as evidenced in names like a tea service.
As I said earlier, the Fine Arts, since the advent of Modernism, take for granted the notion that the materials and techniques should serve the idea and not vice versa. Again, the idea of service, with the idea as the ultimate master over the rest of creative production. For this reason, skill and technique are as unpopular as material. The idea of skill has been more or less entirely eradicated from Fine Arts education (a good reason to keep craft and fine art separate in our schools). Why bother working up a sweat developing skills when it’s perfectly acceptable, encouraged even, to just purchase stuff and display it? Why bother wasting time practicing one’s “craft” when it’s perfectly acceptable, encouraged even to make work that’s considered “raw and direct”
or when its perfectly acceptable, encouraged even to get assistants to do that part for you?
Because of all this, the status gap between craft and art is a class issue.
Those who strive to be ranked amongst the “Haves” value art as its exclusivity and one-of-a kindness confirms a unique, hard-to-attain position in life and conversely, they dislike Craft as it reminds them of common folk and toiling servants.
As if that wasn’t bad enough—the “Have Nots” are disinclined to value skill and virtuosity, as it is unfair and undemocratic! Virtuosity is primarily available to the privileged, those who have endless time to practice, the money to get a fancy education or the random lucky prodigy. Extreme abilities with no philosophy substantiating them are merely the performances of show-offs or a fatuous demonstration of outmoded values, mechanically executed by meaty automatons, exhibitionistic blowhards or perhaps, on a good day, autistics. Why buy into this when we are inundated with acceptably perfect clone items made much more cheaply by actual machines on a daily basis?

So, what’s important and distinct about Craft that we should bother preserving it?
One thing about the so-called “low” technology of hand made craft is that it represents a huge body of knowledge. Shouldn’t the default position on any branch of knowledge be “keep it, don’t dump it”? Not all valuable knowledge is exclusively verbal, last I looked. The knowledge of craft is a vast area that involves intimate kinesthetic understanding of the physical body and its needs and desires. It includes an intimate knowledge of materials and how to construct with them. It includes a deep understanding of tool use, how materials respond to touch, and how our bodies move and respond to the objects they interact with. Craft knowledge is the exclusive nexus between bodies and using, making and enjoying things. Dispatch with that at your own risk!
We might, also, want to acknowledge the transitory nature of societies. They tend to collapse. It helps to have people versed in how to make stuff. If one could elect to NOT lose a body of knowledge, why would one arrogantly declare one obsolete and dispatch with it? Can we afford to outsource this?

There is a lot of truth in the "quality of life" defense of preserving Craft. I can see how easy it would be to assume a cynical or a so-called “practical” stance but regardless of how nostalgic and sentimental it all seems, craft’s virtue bears further attention. To put it very simply, most evils in the world, on both a personal and a mass scale, are ultimately caused by fear, and anger. And what do we fear ultimately? What makes us really frustrated, enraged and terrified? That we might be nothing, that our lives might be meaningless. Well, surrounding oneself with industrially manufactured clone trash items is hardly going to make one feel like an individual, let alone a cherished one.

It’s true that handmade objects do have more character than mass-produced ones! Yes, to use a handmade object is to be in communion with the maker of the object! And yes, yes, yes, unique objects enrich our lives more than soulless, machine made ones!! All it takes is simple sensitivity, awareness and an open mind. We have been brainwashed into craving the slick uniformity of mass production. These goods don’t age well—the patina of use and abuse looks odd, dirty or messy and if it isn’t “new” anymore, hey, why not go buy a sparkly fresh one and support our financial economy! But at what cost to everything else? Are we really prepared to suffer the consequences of preferring brand new at the cost of treasuring things being held dear for a lifetime?

Finally: people have hands. They enjoy using them. Until our hands mutate from digital to “digital”—meaning from fingers into mouse-clicking flippers, a certain proportion of the population is going to be eager to employ their hands in activities like knitting, wood work, playing with clay etc. The desire to be a craftsperson has not disappeared in synch with our technology. So what to do with all these burgeoning craftspeople? Interventions? “Deprogramming”? Lobotomies? Labor camps?

Fine Art and the Dialectical Other-- Craft is the Collateral Damage of Art’s Identity Crisis
So craft suffers from being too close to the body and too far from the head and from being a nagging reminder of servitude and too natural in some circumstances and not natural enough others. This enables Fine Arts to swoop in and occupy the top spot, near the head and away from the ditch.
Ergo, much of Craft’s identity crisis is actually watershed from the massive predicament Fine arts has found itself in. In a way, Fine Craft represents a huge threat to Fine Art’s elite status as the sole provider of aesthetic nourishment.

Art is a funny, funny thing. You think you have worries trying to figure out what “craft” is? Try defining “Art”. The term “Art” is utterly fugitive. Of course, Art doesn’t have to define itself and as long as art cannot be defined, then its shadow—all the stuff that isn’t art but is kind of like it, is just as doomed to being indefinable.

For the most part and we continue to reap what was sown when Fine Arts disassociated itself from practical (and religious) purpose. The course was set in place during the Renaissance. “Art for Art’s Sake” has always contained the seeds of its own destruction (or at least, radical transmutation). Modernism saw a call for new extremes of originality, overthrowing the previous avant-garde or even a need (however secret) for novelty that left the idea of traditional form in the dust. In its eagerness to reject the past, contemporary Fine Art has thrown out the baby with the bathwater so frequently that the army of discarded babies is threatening a zombie-style take over.
Fine Arts claim no responsibility to be anything to anybody and whatever it is; it often comes with an astronomical price tag. They have become increasingly inaccessible and rarified, both intellectually and materially. By ever tightening its focus, Art has treed itself at the very top of a pyramid and it has almost defined itself out of its own practice. (The bone has become a space station...) Meaning, that in the name of “purity” or perhaps, “critical theory” Fine Art washed its hands of technique, aesthetics, skill, narrative, figuration, material and even objecthood and substance. As Art grew ever more dependent on the ideas rather than the object itself, it was inevitable that at some point the object might just...vaporize.... POOF!

That which we term Fine Art is in danger of launching itself into an entire new field—that of cultural critique, or maybe philosophy. By claiming exclusivity, whatever that means this week, there’s obviously going to be a lot of exclusion going on. Assuming people still have senses, bodies and a physical existence... the craving for beauty and the need for actual objects is a gaping vacuum that will necessarily be filled by something. And we will need to find a new word to describe actual aesthetic objects.... perhaps the word Craft might find itself willing to loan its fine name?
(Boy, will MAD be mad then!)

Art has abdicated the throne! Art is dead, long live Crafts! But, for goodness sakes, let’s not become them! Viva le difference!!!
Let’s not fill the void at the expense of what makes Craft unique. Never, ever believe that skill is anything less then the measure of the miraculous feats that our hands, our HUMAN HANDS, inextricably attached to our brains, are capable of. Never, ever believe that materials are lesser than the mind of who is employing them...

Never doubt, for a single instant, that to passionately dedicate oneself to a vein of material knowledge is one of the very best ways to find levels of inspiration and avenues of creativity that are unavailable to those who flit about on the surface. Never doubt this leads to enlightenment! Never change this to suit the times as it is a timeless fact (until we evolve) that if anything, monomanical devotion is one of the surest paths to discovery, originality, and deep spiritual truths. And god help us if those are out of fashion.

There’s more at stake here than words, kudos and money—entire domains of knowledge stand at risk for being lost. The imperative of teaching craft and preserving craft knowledge at any sort of rigorous level is seriously threatened. In many cases craft is being absorbed into the fine arts—with many craftspeople cheering this on. But do you really think the things we value are staying similar enough to painting and sculpture that those technologies will be preserved in fine art departments, collegiate and curatorial? Deskill all you want; all it only means is more outsourcing. Not to mention the loss of a precious body of knowledge that is irreplaceable, priceless and a profound expression of our identity and potential.

Never doubt that Craft, the dogged pursuit of material and technical when allied with expression, emotion, and of course, intellect are a primary instance of healing the pernicious mind body split that ultimately denies all unity; in life and in metaphor.
We have a bi-polar world view in which bodies, sensual and earthy; manual labor, from brutal toiling to fine motor skill; and physical material, from precious to despicable are suspicious, dangerous and somehow at odds with ideas, spirit and inspiration. Fine Arts, as a western cultural institution largely supports that view. But in Craft these are all false dichotomies. Never underestimate what it means to have a deep connection to and a deep understanding of the material world!! We are, ourselves.... material! Craft, as it honors the carnal, the sensible, the sensual, the perceptible, the palpable stands uniquely poised to bring art back to a place of fusion...back to where materials and concepts can cohere, not collapse, where technique and analysis can be a dialectic, not a fight and back to the mysterious spot in our body where spirit meets matter. You know—they used to say it was in the pineal gland...(its still up for grabs!).... Ultimately the task of being alive is to integrate ourselves; to become as fully alive and as fully human as we can be—body and mind. As long as we see them as separate, we are doomed—to disrespect ourselves, our planet and everything on it and in it. Only when we stop hating ourselves will Craft be accorded the respect that is its due. You want to hate a work just because its glass? Go ahead—I DARE YOU!

Can we say mind and body come together in CRAFT? Yes we can. Never apologize for being a craftsperson. Never.