Fragments of the Art World

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I think that each essay we read from the Craft Reader this week showed us fragments of the art world. The art world is made up of hundreds of fragments, each having a certain twist, taste, sound, aroma…the art world is a melting pot of people making decisions developing styles and techniques, and applying medium to their “canvas” in new or old ways. I say “canvas” and use that term loosely because it is the only term I can think of that can cover a multitude of surfaces. Your canvas may literally be a canvas or paper or masonite, but it might also be a wall, a street light, a sidewalk, a piece of metal, or even the air. If you are an embroiderer, your canvas may be a piece of linen kept taught within a hoop. If you are a ceramicist, your canvas may be a pot or the very sculpture you are building. If you are a woodworker, your canvas could be each plane of wood, and the finished piece comes together more and more with every cut, and every pass of sandpaper as it turns into an object. So I use the term canvas loosely here.

The people of Canyon that Philip Lieder mentions in his final essay (How I Spent My Summer Vacation), are an example of those whose canvas is the air. Everything about their life is art. Their homes are works of art that illustrate their very essence; who cares if they’re not up to building codes? They’re works of art, and they serve their purpose for their inhabitants far better than any cookie cutter Moraga house could. Canyon is a prime example of the fragment in the art world where everything centers around art, in a very natural and almost primeval way. When reading this essay, I kept thinking of festivals like Burning Man. Such places and happenings almost seem to take place in another realm…they are nearly transcendental. Many people are not comfortable with a place and people like that of Canyon existing, and that, I think, is why people come in and try to either erase or fix it up; that is why authorities come into Canyon and condemn houses. But Canyon is a fragment of the art world, a type of people who can be found all over and will always go right back to making things after society is finished trying to make them proper for the day.

Then there are artists like George Nakashima. I have never read or heard a wood-worker explain wood-working with such zeal like I do in The Soul of a Tree. He truly sees his work as a spiritual connection between the wood and the maker. He has personified every step of the process. Every aspect about woodworking to him is poetic. He uses the term lyric. I read the way he describes his craft and I wonder how anyone could say this is not art. I think the emotion and spiritual connection he has with wood could even out-beat many people who fit in the “fine arts” category.

But you know, many people cater their work to their audience or their buyers. Most of us handicraft artists like to make a living off of the craftsmanship we work so hard to produce. Does it mean we’re cheating or selling out if we make things that we know will sell? No, I don’t think so at all. Our craft evolves throughout our whole lives. Part of the joy in making craft is that people get to experience it, use it, enjoy it as their own once they buy it from us. Edward S. Cooke, Jr.  argued that Sam Maloof (an esteemed woodworker) was being incorrectly situated into the William Morris ideal. It seemed to me like he was trying to add to his argument by pointing out that Sam Maloof was tweaking his style with the clients’s taste in mind, rather than pursuing that ideal, utopian mindset that people grouped him into. Perhaps Sam Maloof belonged in that category at one time in his life; if a person’s craft is ever-changing, ever becoming better, we cannot hold that person to something that might have been true of his or her work at one time. We make things for ourselves. We make things for people. It can occur simultaneously, and the appearance of our work can change. Craftsmen (and women) have that right.

I think “fine art” is one of those broad terms, hard to pin down and solidly define. I think “craft” can fit in and out of that term, just like the people of Canyon, makers like George Nakashima, and Sam Maloof. Each a pocket of the art world, contributors to a melting pot of artistic culture and the world of craft.