Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Long Ago Battle: Art vs Craft

I've just agreed to babysit a huge art gallery tomorrow in Woodstock.  It will be a long day in the company of many beautiful paintings which, I am sure, will inspire me to work on the one sitting idle in my studio. I've been pre-occupied with other projects lately (coloring and kirigami.)  Periodically, I get down on myself for always gravitating to these cutsie little crafts I like to do - and thereby neglecting the bigger art projects (oil painting, my illustrated book, etc.) I have planned. If I could clone myself, I would do them all.

There is a little war going on inside me about the crafts issue.  It all stems from an experience I had in college (sooooo very long ago) in one of my art classes:

We were studying three dimensional art forms and the assignment was to create a mobile.  Most of my fellow students cut cardboard shapes, painted them and hung them on wires.  I spent countless hours blowing out eggs and wrapping them with colored thread and yarn, then hanging them in a huge flurry from wires.  It really was beautiful.  I was so proud of my work.  And then, my project was graded an "F" for failure.

Devastated and confused, I asked why.  My professor said that what I had done wasn't art; it was craft.  When I went, crying, out of his office, his assistant told me she had argued with him for a long time about my project, saying she thought it was beautiful. This did not deter him.  I ended up with a mediocre grade in that class, having put in two or three times the work as everyone else.  Apparently beauty wasn't enough to make it "real" art.

Even though reasoning tells me it is ridiculous and unfair to make such distinctions, emotionally I still must carry the scars because I find myself apologising a lot if I spend "too much" time on crafts and neglect "more important" work. You see, my real problem with what happened in college was not about my mobile. It was that it planted confusion in me about the nature of art. 

Thankfully, the art vs craft situation has been changing quite a bit in the past decade or so.  Fine craft is taking its place of distinction in the art world.   "Handmade"is hugely popular now.  Websites such as Etsy are thriving.  It's so welcome.

My personal opinion is that this prejudice against craft was part of an old class distinction which is dissipating now. Traditionally, artisans and craftsmen were generally part of the working class. Fine artists made a living only if they had rich patrons and collectors, and were often paraded around to other wealthy patrons like favored toys. Fiber artists and sewers were generally women, whose work has always been seen as a lesser achievement.  Fortunately, the world is much more homogenized now and the same stark boundaries and distinctions are fading.

I am still left with the dilemma, however: how does one define art?
 What is it and what is it not?  At this age, I scoff at the question itself, having learned in other areas of my life that it isn't necessary - or possible - to define everything.  This is something that lies in Pandora's box.  It is like asking What is God? Men have fought wars over that question.  To me art has a spiritual quality which cannot be defined as much as felt.  Does it move you?  Speak to you? Engage your soul?  Then it is art.  For me, beauty is the thing.  I worship beauty (another subjective quality) so art which is not beautiful does nothing for me. Or perhaps it speaks to me words I don't wish to engage in a conversation.  I don't know.  Art has at its center a Mystery and, as all mysteries, creates more questions than it answers.

So, if you hear me whining yet again that "I have to get back to painting." you can recognize that is my old battle with these underlying assumptions about art vs craft.  It's all ridiculous, I know.  But I'm an old dog trying to no longer chase that ball.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if you find comments to your older posts, but I just wanted to let you know that your "craft" work that ends up being coloring pages for those of us out here who aren't artists, is greatly appreciated, and your work is so incredibly beautiful!!! I'm waiting for you to get back to opening your shop after the Christmas break so I can indulge in getting some of your art into my home so I can color your beautiful designs!! Hugs, H in Healdsburg