By Any Other Name*
How do you tell craft from art? With great difficulty
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 8/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Designing interiors around collections of vases or pots has never been easy. For example, how do you install a $250,000 Indian friendship basket and a top-of-the-line Sub-Zero in the same New Jersey kitchen? (Architect David Ling built a room divider with assorted niches and platforms.)
And now there's one more challenge: never, ever using the word craft, despite the fact that people are still buying the stuff and designers creating rooms around it.
It's the term itself that's distinctly unacceptable—at least among most buyers, sellers, or exhibitors of high-end objets d'art. A cultural institution in Tacoma, Washington, goes by the unwieldy name Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art to avoid any link to the items found at country fairs. And while the American Craft Council has stuck to its guns, New York's American Craft Museum has morphed into the Museum of Arts & Design.
This craft-lessness makes a serious point. As Museum of Glass director Josi Callan explains, "Our artists are working with ideas. Glass is just a medium for their expression." In other words, "artists" use glass—or clay or fiber—as a means to an end. "Craftspeople," by contrast, are content to explore materials and technique. Or so the thinking goes. "It's about intention," concurs Jan Peters, an owner of the Del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles, pointing out that even carved wood can be art. "How successful a piece is has nothing to do with what it's made of."
Does it really matter that the c word has become passé? "Craft does make you think of seashell mirrors and macramé," Ling concedes. Douglas Heller—whose New York gallery shows, as he puts it, "contemporary work that's done with glass"—doesn't lament the word either.
Instead, Heller sees the shift in terminology as following a shift in approach. Half a century ago, he says, "Techniques were passed from mother to daughter, from master to apprentice." Now, people who work in clay, glass, and fiber are coming out of art school. The Heller Gallery typically represents sculpture MFAs.
According to the Douglas Dawson Gallery's eponymous owner, who deals in ethnographic artifacts in Chicago, the name change "grew out of a sense of frustration with the exclusivity of the fine-arts world." But that world, at least some of it, seems equally happy to embrace craft. Last fall, when "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" came to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, no one denied the Alabama handicrafts' aesthetic power. But New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman went further, describing them as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." Yet the women who made the quilts had no intention of creating art. To call them art deprives them of their utilitarian context.
Use once defined the line separating art from craft. A glass bowl holds water, while the towering glass pieces of Czech artists Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova hold only light. "People can call coffee cups craft, but I prefer to call my work art," says Marvin Lipofsky, a Californian whose glass can sell for more than a Mercedes.
The art-craft line, however, has become rather blurry. If Wisconsin-based Jim Rose, who shows at Chicago's Ann Nathan Gallery, makes Shaker-style furniture entirely from steel, the shift from wood to metal arguably elevates copying to commenting. And that, says Ann Nathan, makes him an artist, even though his tables are eaten on.
Others perceive the issue as purely aesthetic. "To me, art is something beautiful. There are plenty of paintings that I don't consider art," says Gail Martin, a New York dealer in textiles. Still others say it's the money. "Usually," Heller points out, "the difference between art and craft is several zeros."
Or the Atlantic Ocean. Sarah Parker-Eaton, a British metalsmith repped by Del Mano, came over to New York for the Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Exposition last spring. "Back home, I'm a craftswoman," she marveled. "Here, I'm rather enjoying being called an artist."
Harumi Nakashima exhibits ceramics at Dai Ichi Arts in New York.
Peter Collingwood has shown Macrogauze 36—Red 3D, in linen and steel rods, at New York's Gail Martin Gallery.
Philip Moulthrop used epoxy-resin soaking for Ash Leaf Maple Dish, displayed at Gallery Materia in Scottsdale, Arizona.
New York's Heller Gallery represents Karen LaMonte, whose Remnant (Dress) is cast glass.
To create Plus-Minus Brooch, exhibited at New York's Museum of Arts & Design, Stanley Lechtzin used a three-step process incorporating stereo-lithography, rapid-prototype epoxy, and rapid-prototype cast 24-karat gold.
William Hunter has shown his cocobolo-wood Infinity Flames at the Del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles.