Thursday, May 18, 2006

Choose: History of Craft or Great Enamel Pendants


Today's post offers two options: one's eye candy, the other's brain candy.

1) View an updated slideshow of enamel pendants (like this one -- so perfect for spring dressing) available at Greenjeans made by Alana Dlubak by linking to this previous post, or

2) Read an essay I wrote exploring the place of craft in today's society and economy.


Here's the essay:

History of Craft: An Initial Overview
by Amy E. Shaw

I've often wondered why there is such a distinction between the art world and the craft world in our society. Why is fine art so highly revered while fine craft hardly registers on the cultural radar? Why is there a hierarcy placing art above craft, and artists above artisans? Aren't both art and craft equally vital to an expressive culture? Don't they both have value?

As part of my exploration of these questions, I will from time to time post short essays in response to things I'm reading and thinking about. Starting today!

Recently I've been reading a collection of essays titled Objects & Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Co-editor and independent curator M. Anna Fariello in her essay "Regarding the History of Objects" lays out a geneaology tracing the development and divergence of art and craft.

Until the Renaissance, art and craft were virtually synonymous. The turning point came with the publication of Giorgio Vasari's classic work The Lives of the Artists, which fostered a lasting sense of "object fetishism, creator worship, and primacy fascination." While painting found a place next to theory and criticism, "the three-dimensional arts became ideologically coupled with manual labor, domesticity, and physicality." The European Salons and art museums emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries institutionalized this division of high art vs. common craft.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century spurred a flourishing of craft due to the high-profile dedication of people like John Ruskin and William Morris, founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England. "Reacting to a workplace in which labor was fractured into meaningless tasks and to an environment filled with goods of questionable quality, the Arts and Crafts Movement began... as a counterrevolution... It represented a shift toward Eastern aesthetics, a corresponding reverence for simplicity, and an elevation of everyday experience from the physical to the spiritual." She continues, "Critic John Ruskin gave others courage to pursue the idealization of the household object and its private contemplation when he stated, 'Every artist was a craftsman and the simplest household object worthy of his serious effort.' Thus, one might consider English Arts and Crafts to be a privitization of the aesthetic experience."

The craft-conscious Vienna Secession, L'Art Nouveau in France, the German die Jungendstil, and the American Studio Craft Movement emerged at the same time. During this period, Western society developed an appreciation for craft as works of fine craft became available to purchase, view in exhibitions, and read about in magazines like Gustav Stickley's The Craftsman. Stores such as Morris' Liberty and Company in London and Tiffany and Company in New York provided the (wealthy enough) public with fine works of craft to use and admire in their homes. In fact, most of the names we associate with craftsmanship today -- Stickley, Charles Rene Macintosh, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Roycrofters Guild, even Frank Lloyd Wright -- were products of this late 19th- and early 20th-century flourishing.

So what happened to the golden age of craft? Several factors contributed to its demise. The two World Wars and the Depression created economic hardships that dimmed attention to society's aesthetic concerns. But even more significantly, "it was that hand skill was made entirely obsolete by a new aesthetic," namely the International Style, characterized by a paring-down of form and preference for an industrial aesthetic that eschewed decoration.

Where Fariello's argument becomes really interesting is when she points out the role of the prevailing sexism of the mid-20th century in the demise of craft. "The fact that women continued to create craft objects contributed to the perception that the objects themselves were domestic... As America's citizens moved from farm to city, the concept of home became more physically and ideologically distinct from the workplace, as distinct as the widening separation of art and industrial design from studio craft." Arts and Crafts became "art" and "craft," "separated, and ranked one above the other. Inferior connotations were heaped upon craft, relegating it to hobby status and ignoring the fundamental value it had sustained for centuries."

She continues, "The craft object (and its corollary component, skill) was devalued aesthetically by art history, devalued economically by industry, devalued physically by architecture, and devalued critically by academia." Compared with art, craft is still a subject all but ignored by critics, only marginally addressed by musuems, and taken less seriously by society in general.

In America, craft experienced a revival in the 1970s, which I plan to discuss in a future post, but it never regained the celebratory status enjoyed during the golden age.

Today, people who envision new forms for domestic objects are most often referred to as designers. As a consumer society we are hungry for design, and we value it, as the success of such design-conscious stores as Target, Crate & Barrel, and Restoration Hardware attest. But it is rare in this day and age that a so-called designer actually makes the objects they design as they would have long ago. That lowly task is usually outsourced, often to laborers in third-world countries. Just look at the bottom of any Michael Graves teapot or Jonathan Adler vase for proof.

The appeal of handmade objects has also caught the consumer's eye in recent years. But again, those "handstitched" pillows at Anthropology and rustic-looking picture frames at Pottery Barn are by and large produced overseas by low-paid workers. We value the aesthetic, but the skill required to make these objects is vastly undervalued.

Is it possible to rekindle a widespread appreciation for fine handmade objects, for functional art to use in the home, while also revaluing the skilled manual work of the artisan? Are we only concerned with the look of a thing, or also with its substance and value?

We think so. Greenjeans is attempting to help make it so. But for now these questions, and all the others they raise, are unanswerable. At least within the scope of this blog entry.

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