Crafts in a Muddle 1 2 3 4 5 6 - PRINTER VERSION
>> ceramic sculptures by Arnold Zimmerman (each about nine feet in height) that only by the
wildest stretch of the imagination could be thought of as vessels. Even if one were to apply the
ceramic field's often used expression "the vessel as metaphor", these objects simply cannot be
read as such. "The Object for Personal Adornment" is made up primarily of jewelry except for a few
"kimono"-like garments that one sees people wearing only at craft museum openings. Much of the
jewelry suffers from the same tendencies that occur in most of the furniture in "The Object Made
for Use". The individual's personality and an obsession with technique had the tendency to
overwhelm any glimmer of an idea: the result was jewelry that tried to look like miniature
sculpture instead of jewelry that challenges wearers to consider themselves part of the aesthetic
An obsession with craftsmanship and technique was common to much of the work in this show.
Some years ago Donald Kuspit made a connection between this "obsession" and academia: "...[an
obsession with technique is] academic compensation for the absence of vision that is a consequence
of making all one's meaning self-evident-a necessity of teaching". In this light it is significant
that 90% of the artists Smith chose are academically trained and that well over half of them hold
some kind of teaching position in the university system.
Contemporary craft in America is at an important—even critical—stage of its development.
Since the late '60s it has been a pubescent teenager totally preoccupied with and fixated on
itself to the point of ignoring any historical or cultural definition of craft other than its own.
It is now reaching the age of consensus and can expect to be held accountable for its actions and
demonstrates, if nothing else, that the challenge facing crafts is one of
definition and clarification of its aims and language. Many in the crafts establishment scoff at
this analysis. Their reasons inevitably center around the argument that any definition of craft
will severely limit its creative prospects. Benezra's and Smith's view of craft certainly reflects
this position. It is not just the philosophical arrogance and paternalism of this reformist view
of craft that is so intolerable: what is more important is that it essentially cuts craft off from
The reformist view implies that craft forms of the past are no longer relevant: that the craft
language is archaic and no longer able to speak to the heart of the human condition or to provide
any moral or aesthetic lessons. This, of course, is absurd and is refuted by anyone with moderate
sensibilities who has experienced the beauty, diversity, and depth of expression of, say, Egyptian
and Pre-Columbian jewelry, pottery from the Sung Dynasty of China, textiles from Indonesia and our
own Shaker furniture. These works and others like them share the common visual language of craft
that eloquently expressed the human condition long before Modernism's view of art ever came into
being and, I expect, still will centuries from now when Modernism will be no more than a footnote
in the history of art. In the meantime, contemporary craft, in its obsession with being accepted
by the fine arts seems in danger of losing fluency in its own language.
Although contemporary craft has in the last 25 years become more technically sophisticated and
refined and has gained popularity with a wider audience, its aims are still unclear. Craft
does nothing to
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