March 10, 2011

...A Making Of Things, Part 1

I really wanted to get into National Craft Month by getting a perspective from several of our instructors and bloggers in the bead universe.

The first person who came to mind was Andrew Thornton. Andrew is a very...well...thoughtful writer. He really paints pictures with his words. If you aren't familiar with his blog, I urge you to check it out.

But back to the question; Art vs. Craft. Are we defined by the title, "Artist?" Does the very word "Crafter"  make the results from our worktables not have artistic merit?

 In this two-part series, Andrew discusses his views on the subject and introduces us to artists who are a part of today's "handmade revolution". Take it away, Andrew:

A Revolution in Making

For this examination of where Art meets Craft, let’s clear up some definitions.  For the sake of this investigation, let’s define Art as any man-made object, either created individually, by a group, or under direction, that has been qualified as an art object by a group of “qualified” observers.  “Qualified” will mean that the deciding audience are other established artists, art historians, art critics, collectors, curators, gallery owners… pretty much anyone who has to deal with, in one way or another, the business of Art.  There are some exceptions to this definition of Art, but this umbrella definition covers a majority of ways of making Art and will set a good baseline.  The definition of “craft” is not so easy to peg down, perhaps because its definition has changed throughout history.  The following paragraph will briefly chronicle the general history of Crafts:

In the beginning, there were no differences between Arts and Crafts.  Everything was made by hand.  Some of the earliest markers of civilization don’t originate in language or even in ancient cave paintings, but in beads.  Even before pottery, body adornment predates almost all others signs of intelligent human development.  Museums of ancient art often times include pieces of pottery, jewelry and more decorative utilitarian items, because there was little distinction between the two movements.  This would last pretty much until the Renaissance in Europe, where the rise of the middle class would prompt a cultural revolution.  Art would decorate the lives of the wealthy, while craft, the handmade items not of purely utilitarian purposes, was the art of the average person.  With advancements in technology, this mode of thinking was altered yet again with the rise of the Industrial Revolution.  Mass manufacturing phased out the need to make things by hand, changing crafting and the creation of objects for both beauty and function from a necessity and to that of a hobby.  Crafting, as a hobby, saw a surge of change with the development of the publishing world.  How-to guides, marketed mainly in women’s magazines, were very popular.  Lines between the Arts and Crafts grew more pronounced.  With war came the G.I. Bill and more funds for educational institutions for specialized training, Art being one of them.  Civil rights movements would aid in blurring the lines, but many of the ingrained ideas would last for decades after.
When I was in art school in New York City, which some argue is the center of the Fine Art World, there was a perpetual debate over Art vs. Crafts.  When one is paying upwards of $40,000 a year on tuition, it is easy to see what side I took in defense or possibly as a way to rationalize my educational expenses.  In those days, the word “crafts” was almost a dirty word, in the same vein as “precious” and “pretty” were.  Everyone in the Fine Art Department wanted to be "innovative" or "challenging."  But we were riding high on uncertain times that would quickly see change.
Most of my contemporary art students would meet an unfriendly reception upon graduation; within the next few years the economy would stumble and falter, with effects that would ripple outward with shockwaves still being felt years after the “end of the recession”.  The money that fueled the boom of the Art World just wasn’t there anymore.  The fad of buying works of untested emerging artists was quickly quelled and collectors seeking a quick return in an unstable market liquidated acquisitions at rock bottom prices, a move that would crash several promising careers.  Finding opportunities to show and participate in the Art World dialogue became fewer and harder to secure through the usual channels.
But all was not lost.   While all this was happening, the Handmade Revolution, a reaction to commercial, mass-produced products (sometimes of poor quality or sterile feeling) was digging deep roots with the help of the Internet.  Sites like Etsy, specializing in handmade goods, one-of-a-kinds, and custom work began to gather popularity with quick momentum.  So, while many traditional galleries were faced with closings and consolidations, new markets were emerging.  Disenchanted artists embraced the craft community, finding livings or supplements to their incomes and alternative ways of showing their work.  With these new markets and opportunities, the Art World was facing decentralization, finding homes outside of New York City in more affordable locales.  Art became a bigger discussion, as it found its way into millions of homes through the Internet. A perusal of the big survey shows, biennials, and the art fairs in New York City revealed many artists had also scattered or at the very least moved to surrounding boroughs and neighboring cities. Small galleries and artist studios began to spring up all across the country, interacting both locally and on a bigger stage.

Tune in tomorrow to see examples of artisans who straddle and blur the line between art and craft as Andrew continues his thought provoking look at these two forms of expression.

...and don't forget to enter our Week #2 giveaway. Contest open until Monday, March 14 at 8 AM PST!

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