Crafts in a Muddle 1 2 3 4 5 6 - PRINTER VERSION
>> position in a society, appear unwilling and disinclined to learn another language and even
at times believe that those who do not speak their language lack ambition or worse, intelligence.
Listen to Neal Benezra, associate curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Art
Institute of Chicago, in his New York Times
article on Craft Today
, titled "But Is
"Contemporary work in other materials has generally been less ambitious. Craftsmen working
with glass regularly produce vessels, woodworkers generally create furniture, and metalworkers
frequently fashion jewelry.
Beyond ceramics, the only material to consistently yield works of art rather than objects of
function has been fiber...Similar to Voulkos, Price, Arneson, and Mason, Zeisler and Hicks have
avoided the all-too-common pitfall of making functional objects, a decision that has broadened the
imaginative horizons of each and that has been essential to their growth as artists."
By offhandedly dismissing function and labeling the making of vessels, furniture, and jewelry
as unambitious, Benezra displays a chauvinistic and patronizing attitude that says: if you want
recognition from us, you had better learn to speak our language. This is typical of the criticism
one often hears from smug and sanctimonious members of the fine arts establishment, who seem to
relish displaying their intellectual shallowness regarding the crafts. This attitude also reflects
the fine arts' claim that the production of art is an activity that can occur only within their
Imagine, for a moment, as hard as it may be, that the situation was reversed; that the craft
establishment held the pre-eminent position in our society and painting and sculpture were the
"marginal" activities. Then we would see painters and sculptors attempting to curry favor with the
craft establishment by producing paintings and sculptures that were functional and resembled one
of the craft disciplines like pottery, jewelry, or furniture making. And in an attempt to
legitimize their work they would ask well-known craft critics to jury prestigious exhibitions. We
might overhear the jurors decrying painters' obsession with rectangles and squares made almost
exclusively of canvas and sculptors' total disregard for function. In The New York Times
might even find a craft critic lamenting that as long as painters continue to make paintings and
sculptors continue to make sculpture their work will remain merely objects that can only be looked
at. And that if they want to broaden their imaginative horizons, they will have to avoid the
all-too common pitfall of making work that is nothing more than a non-functional, self-indulgent
display of an individual's personality.
There are many craftspeople—and members of the craft establishment—who have bought
Benezra's bill of goods. They have rejected whole parts of craft's language—function, for
example—because they do not fit into Modernism's view of what art is or can be. Their gain is a
dubious one, their rejection of function akin to one cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.
Paul Smith seems to have adopted a strategy for gaining entree to the fine arts that comes
from an old saying: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and squawks like a duck, then it
must be a duck. In
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