Crafts criticism.(Janet Koplos Metalsmith Summer 1993)

The following is reprinted from the 1992 monograph published by the Haystack Institute, an annual forum to examine ideas of philosophical importance to the craft field. (Haystack, P.O. Box 518, Deer Isle, Maine 04627

Crafts criticism is a mess. It has a shaky past, uncertain credentials, no theoretical basis and only a vague vision of an ideal. A lot of it is defensive, operating on the assumption that crafts is an underdog field, unfairly denied status as art. Yet almost never does this defensive criticism really consider whether being defined as art is a good thing. [...]
To start off, I'm going to assert that, as a product of art schools, and of such criticism as there has been, the whole crafts world has been like Cinderella's wicked stepsisters trying to squash their big feet into the glass slipper - that is, crafts has been trying to be something that it's not. For 40 years craftspeople have been trying to make painting and sculpture - usually not trying as hard as possible, more like just standing with their feet in the same place and leaning toward art. (The advantage of not trying too hard, of course, is that you always have an excuse for failure.)
One consequence of this persistent inclination has been a tendency of craft critics to borrow the nominal vocabulary of art criticism, along with a tendency of everyone to treat the whole craft field as a unity, which it is not. In the process of grinding up crafts in the art machine, what is useful and valuable and distinctive about crafts is often forgotten or disparaged.

Let me state the obvious: crafts isn't just things that want to be called art and want to be looked at in galleries and museums. [...]
But [...] let me enumerate some of the varieties of crafts.

1) One kind is the work using conventional crafts materials that succeeds in making it into art galleries and art magazines. So far, work in clay has most often been the recipient of art world acceptance.
2) In addition, crafts encompasses what we can call artisanry - for example, the functional ware that potters make for sale in their town, or at art fairs.
3) Besides that, there's public commission, - for example the large-scale textile works that hang in hotel atriums.
4) In addition, there's folk art, such as Appalachian jugs or baskets.
5) There are are a few craftspeople who make design prototypes for line, of porcelain dinnerware, jewelry, or luxury glass collectibles.
6) There's also hobby crafts, although our crafts field always tries to distance itself from the hobbyists.
7) And finally, and most nebulously, there's the stuff that's called "Exhibition work" but that stays within traditional craft forms - for example, teapots that can't be used and are made to show. 

Of these groups, only in the first and last case does it make any sense to write "art criticism" about the work. That's because criticism, as it is extracted and extrapolated from the art world, deals with personal expression, with originality; but at rock bottom, with ideas. Art is always about something. Art introduces ideas visually, and the things may be philosophical, political, social, historical, spiritual, psychological. Even in the case of abstract art, there is presumed to be an under­lying concept that may deal with formal issues or has some meaning by analogy. The fact that art is always about something means that it has layers, it is not just one thing. Both "art works in craft media" and "exhibition works" have this kind of subject matter, and criticism can enrich our understanding of them.
(Criticism, you understand, is not some god-given truth, not some final answer to what the work means. It is simply a proposal, a tentative interpretation, based on a very careful observa­tion by someone who can write. Criticism is an outside view of what a work communicates, based on translating a visual language into a verbal language. Criticism is a service or an educational endeavour - although there have certainly been cases when art criticism has become so self-conscious that it has turned into a self-serving performance and actually become an impediment to understanding the art work.)

lthough criticism can be a useful contribution to "art in craft media" and "exhibition works," it is destructive in the case of useful objects. Functional things differ from the intellectual and often almost cynical leading-edge art today.
I hope nobody thinks that all visual objects should be art and should engage with articulable ideas. Our world and our needs are not that narrow, and squashing everything into one category just makes the category meaningless. Functional things are different from art, but they're not less, they're not dumb, they're not shallow - they're just different. Let me again state the obvious: the prime characteristic of functional work is that it performs a function. Criticism as currently constituted, being based on exhibitions in which the things on display are not supposed to be touched, cannot address function. You can tell very lit­tle about the efficiency or experience of use by just looking at an object.
Critical writing about functional work has always been problematic. It might be useful to write about the work in terms of engineered design - using technical language - or it might be rewarding to talk about its physical character and the nature of the experience of using it. But that's not art criticism as we know it today, which deals with ideas. There might be some question of readership for such design information, but then, there's a question of readership for every kind of art writing, and I don't think it would be a terrible stretch for readers of most craft publications to absorb such information. Technical analysis might require some new writers, though.

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unctional work still has its visual aspects, of course. It has form or shape, it has color, it has texture, it may have pattern or image. All those things can be discussed in the kind of "art appre­ciation" approach that I think should always be a part of good criticism, to explain how a work visu­ally communicates. But it would be a very odd distortion to write about those aspects in isolation while disregarding the purpose of the object. Yet that's what happens when art criticism is applied to functional works.
Moreover, those visual aspects that can be discussed do not adequately encompass psychological and sociological aspects of the work that may be very important - may in fact be more important than any specifics of appearance. Perhaps writing about functional work should never be restricted to the work alone; perhaps the whole way that a maker lives and deals with material goods should always be part of the discussion. Perhaps, the object is just the physicalization of a phi­losophy that shapes a lifestyle.
The pernicious effect of criticism in functional work is not a matter of attacks on specific objects: the problem is that the irrelevance of "use" in art-critical discourse means that "use" is discounted. Functional work is less likely to be reviewed, and when it is reviewed the function is less likely to be discussed. The slow but inexorable result has been that use seems outdated or even mindless. [...]

nother reason for this shift, though, is economic rather than critical: functional work has to sell for reasonable prices or people won't be willing to use the objects - this is less true of jewelry - but the price of art can rise almost limitlessly. Thus even if functional craftspeople themselves aren't seduced by the thought of making more money for their work if it's nonfunctional, this factor can act as a damper on galleries. [...] The conclusion one has to draw from this situation is that functional work belongs in shops. That would be a neat solution to the problem, and an end to this discussion, if our minds weren't poisoned by the assumption that what's in a shop can't be as important as what is in a gallery.
Critical writing can also be destructive in the case of folk crafts. Usually the beauty of folk crafts is something distilled over time by what I like to think of as a bedrock human sense-and­-sensitivity that comes through when distractions are removed. There has been some philosophical speculation that purely functional things are by their nature beautiful - an interesting idea that the straightforwardness of function is inherently beautiful. Folk crafts are defined and they appeal to us - because of their distance from trends and from arbitrariness. But writing about folk crafts often has the unintended result of destroying that healthy distance.

The best example of this that I know about happened in Japan, but it could happen anywhere. It's the famous case of Onta pottery, which was "discovered" in the backwoods of the island of Kyushu, so to speak, by Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Japan Folk crafts Museum. He wrote about it as the perfect realization of community-based cooperative pottery production yielding useful forms that exemplified what he called "healthy beauty". As a result of the atten­tion he brought to Onta pottery, collectors and dealers wanted to acquire it, so prices rose, making it awfully expensive to use. Then some traditional forms were dropped because there was less demand for them among the new buyers. And foreign celebrities such as Bernard Leach visited and introduced foreign forms and practices, such as pitchers or handles. In addition, individual potters were singled out for attention, and that upset the social system of the pottery village. The consequence was that Onta became modern pottery, not folk pottery. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.[...]

aybe we should conclude that there should be no writing about folk crafts. But there is a natural human in­terest in it, and besides, we have to accept that it can't be locked in a time capsule involuntarily (and perhaps not even voluntarily).[...]
There's still a separate question of whether criticism is appropriate for folk crafts. In this instance, critics can't talk about personal expression. That aspect of art is seldom present in folk crafts. Ideas can certainly be discussed, but the ideas in folk crafts whether manifested in form or decoration - are usually cultural standards, so there is seldom the kind of multilevel ambiguity that distinguishes the stuff we call art. Today the symbols used in folk crafts are used because their meaning is shared in the community. They are understood by all members of the community. This suggests that the interesting aspects of folk crafts can be addressed in anthropological terms, without the speculative projection of meaning that is typical of art criticism. And with folk crafts, as with artisanry, there's more to the story than just the object, so criticism is too narrow. So here again, art criticism strikes out.[...]

Production lines sometimes don't differ at all in visual character from the singular or limited-edition products of artisans, and if there is a difference it tends to be only a greater refinement and stan­dardization in mass-produced work. The philosophical claims that are made for the preferability of handmade work over factory-made work are actually extra-aesthetic - that is, they're things you know through ways other than seeing. They're no less valid than visual aspects, though. In fact, in these days when politically correct leading-edge art criticism insists on taking into account the cultural context in which art is produced, it would be interesting to try to make an art-criticism case for the moral preferability of handmade work. Such a case would have to be argued, presented as a manifesto, but such a reasoned ideological approach is uncommon in crafts criticism.
The marketing systems of these two fields make a big difference in their relationship to criti­cism. Factory-produced work has more to gain from advertising or exposure to buyers through home-decorating magazines. Criticism, being geared to discussion rather than sales, does not have much relevance to the aims of production lines.

ublic-commission crafts occupy a very visible yet a very ambiguous position. In hotels and corporate lobbies this work is likely to be treated as decor rather than art and to be unlabeled. The same thing happens to paintings in the same setting, so the problem is not in the crafts works themselves. The difficulty that craft or art faces in this context raises interesting questions about "art in life", and about how much of art's power derives from its placement and treat­ment rather than from inherent qualities of the work [...]
Crafts works placed in public settings are usually abstract and usually large. They tend to concentrate on such formal interests as color, structure, or texture, which are presumed to be understandable and appealing to an untutored public; they are intended to be pleasant rather than intellectually or politically challenging.
t's a quirk of today's art world that likable work is seen as less "worthy" than difficult or unpleasant work. There is no automatic correlation. Still, the public art that gets treated by art critics is the work that's different: difficult, or critical, or austere, or challenging. There's more to say about work that is an exception to the rule. Use of craft materials is not cause for exclusion from critical writing about public works. So that's what criticism focuses on. Crafts do better here than in some other situations. Still the public works are never placed for the purpose of attracting critical atten­tion. Their target audience is average people, rather than critics. The work itself does not seem to accrue prestige from favorable criticism and so become more valuable to its owner. But favorable public attention - such as people liking to have their picture taken in front of the work - has an intangible value for the owner. In the case of public works, criticism is not pernicious, but neither is it particularly significant. More appropriate are simply reports on this sort of work, such as news­paper coverage, or analyses that focus more on public response than on artistic intentions.
"Exhibition works" and "art made in crafts materials" are the two categories of work that are made to show, made to talk about, made to be critically analyzed in accordance with our 20th­ century practice of art criticism. [...] This work is easily discussible in the terms art critics normally use, or else it is somehow so compelling that it forces critics to use its language, to choose a vocabulary keyed to its originality.
"Exhibition works" is probably the largest and most bothersome category. These works are the ones I mentioned that lean toward art, that adopt its forms or its language or its subject matter but that don't adopt the art emphasis on individuality or originality. They continue to be shown at crafts galleries and in juried crafts exhibitions Š self-segregating themselves. They have just enough in common with the other forms of art that it's rather easy for members of the art world to look at them and say, "This looks familiar, and it's second-rate art." To some degree, that criticism is justified [...]

Let me baldly state another truth: crafts makers believe that art is more important than crafts, so they look at the shows, read the magazines, and, in following the trends, they come off looking like copyists. [...] Yet in general, by copying or by responding to someone else's invention, you can never catch up. You stay at the end of the line. (At the same time that I talk about this influence from exposure to art, I must observe, contradictorily, that it's also true that most craftspeople don't really keep up with art, aren't very well informed about new work and new artists. The work that gets through to them is what's well established, which is what I mean by this work not really entering the art world but just leaning toward it, and is also why crafts tends to look dated in an art context.)

et to confuse matters further, crafts has such a rich and varied history that often when some new trend shows up in the art world, the crafts world declares, "Oh, but we've been doing that all along!" This is a pathetic situation, because while it's true that crafts had the precedent (the latest example is the art world's newly found multiculturalism), to bring up that fact is to use the defense of the powerless. Crafts did it all along, but crafts criticism never made anything of it, never set multiculturalism as an ideological foundation stone of crafts work - until it became important in art. The "me too!" defense just proves again that the art world is the one that determines the subject of the conversation. [...] You might equate the crafts position with the female role in conversational exchange - typically the woman introduces topics but the male determines whether or not they are taken up.
It's not hard to see the blood kinship between art and crafts. But crafts is definitely different from art. People who have been looking at painting and sculpture and turn to "exhibition crafts" frequently think that the work is too timid and too small. This, again, is a case of art setting the ground rules: most leading-edge art today is large scale, and the occasional work that's not tend to be amazingly dense and by that means are as assertive and demanding of attention as larger sculpture.

he truth of this matter is that crafts in general is more concerned with surface qualities than art is, and thus is more involved with subtleties. Crafts more often places a premium on com­municating the natural character of the material it's made of; and that usually requires a close look. This intimacy is an identifying character of crafts and it's certainly not a weakness per se, but it does require shifting gears as one moves from painting and sculpture to crafts. People who spend all their time involved with crafts see the subtleties, see the innovations, and can easily get ex­cited by good work, whereas people from the art world may only see a kind of diminishment. Furniture currently seems to be one place where there is some potential to overcome this dichotomy. A bench or a desk is large enough to make a bold statement in a gallery, yet because furniture is used it is perfectly normal for people to get very close to it so they see the subtleties, too. Crafts gal­leries often perpetuate or exacerbate the problem of this change in focal distance, I guess it could be called, because they line the gallery walls with objects placed too close together and set in display cases that distance them and suppress their distinctive qualities. Crafts galleries present work more like shops do than like art galleries do.

Crafts also differs from most art in terms of directness and metaphor. A painter's activity is so divorced from normal life that every action has to be seen as freighted with intention and meaning, whereas a craft object may be just what it is - a body adornment, a utensil, a protective covering - unless the maker consciously works at adding other meanings. These basic purposes are keyed to the human body, so crafts usually is made in a familiar, intimate scale that doesn't de­mand our full attention as the extremes of scale in painting or sculpture often do. Also, the tan­gibility, the reality; the material identity of craft objects are almost indomitable, which means that it's hard for a craft object ever to create a pictorial illusion of a different scale. Only rarely, do you look at crafts and get pulled into an imaginary space - an ef­fect that's quite common in painting. Usually when crafts makes a convincing illusion, there's a correspondence between the size of the craft object and the size of what's being depicted. All these factors of difference result in crafts that strive to be art; thus they often seem modest and unexciting. But it doesn't have to be that way. Crafts' best route to art is to capitalize on its strength, it's own character, doing the things that other art media can't do.

ut perhaps if craftspeople develop more confidence to do exactly that, to capitalize on their differences, they'll stop worrying about being art and just be themselves. That doesn't mean being a wicked stepsister or even a weak stepsister, it just means being an individual with confi­dence in your own identity.
In closing, I'd like to say that criticism should be applied only to that segment of the crafts world that pursues ideas, originality, ambiguity and the other characteristics of art. Crafts­people should recognize that if they want the "privileges" of art, they're also going to have to accept the "responsibilities" and that means jumping into the art world and facing tough criticism. Still, criticism should not be seen as an honor but simply as one way of discussing a particular type of work. Crafts critics should not struggle always to sound as if they're talking about art, but should adopt the language of the object they're describing, even if that includes aspects that are not currently popular in the art world. Crafts galleries should allow space between objects and at the same time should allow intimate approach. Crafts publications should not try to treat all aspects of crafts in the same tune and the same "elevated" regard which has the regrettable effect of distancing these things from our lives. Crafts publications also should consolidate, so that when there is important writing of whatever sort, it can serve an educational function for more than just the little section of the crafts world that reads a medium-specific magazine.

And finally, craftspeople should remember what brought them to the field and to the material, and should be true to their own hearts and not be swayed by what others are doing. top