I’ve been to the year 3,000

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Do you ever wonder about 1,000 years into the future?

I have sat through my fair share of art history courses, enough that they’re giving me a minor in it. This semester I have found myself wondering what archeologists and art historians will think when they unearth our art. I imagine the whole slew of crazy art that I have seen, and I imagine them wondering what kinds of deities we worshipped, or trying to conjure up purposes for many craft works. There is literally so much art and craft out there that I wonder what will be preserved to speak of our culture in the future. Much of it is art for art’s sake; instead of local artisans creating all the sculptures for the king, or chiseling out calendars and stelae full of historical moments, people make things because they like to, because it is a release, because of expression of ideas or feelings. Everything has a concept. Will those concepts be remembered after hundreds of years? Will they understand everything they find? Especially ceramics and other materials that don’t decompose so easily…there’s a lot of weird stuff out there. And unlike other cultures where their items served a purpose, our items are often purposeless save the conceptual ties. Our art culture is much more geared towards ideas rather than records of history.

I often wonder what movements they will classify us under. Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernism, Post-Modernism…but what comes after all of those? What will we be called? No doubt there will be tens and twenties of various categories and sub-categories branching off from one another.

The thought that really boggles me though is just how much art there is by now (and we are constantly making more). There is an innumerable amount of objects in art history already, but just imagine all of the art we have made in the past century being uncovered and analyzed. There will be SO MUCH for people to find. This is what I think about when someone mentions how very little craft there is within art history. “There’s not enough craft in history. Craft is important. It IS!” Same goes for women artists. “There are not enough women artists in the history of art. I am appalled!” 

Don’t you get it? You are making the history. This has been a golden era in which an explosion of craft has occurred. Also, most of the artists I find and am inspired by today are women; there seems to be no lack of them now. I am sure it is directly related to feminism’s rise in importance and the ideas and concepts which flow from that. I think the questions many art critics and historians have been asking about the lack of women and the lack of craft in the art world are being solved and answered right now. We may not have figured out every answer so far, but I do believe we are currently in a history-making movement in which we will continue establishing what will be found in future art history books. Just imagining what art history will include in the future is, to me, quite mind-blowing.

 

On How Modernism and Art-Envy is Bad for Craft

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Erin Furimsky passed along to me a certain article by Bruce Metcalf entitled Replacing the Myth of Modernism. It is a fairly long read, but came highly recommended from her as something that might be of interest to me. Essentially, Metcalf has produced a lengthy dissertation on the evils of Modernism in art and how it has grossly affected craft. Apparently there is a theory going around that craft is finally art and you can all go home now. I can’t say I fully disagree; you can all go home but craft is certainly not the same as art.

Metcalf says, “If craft wants entry into the temple of art, it had better change its clothes—and be very polite.” An attempt to become just like art is toxic to craft and craftspeople should stop trying to force it. He says there are some important distinctions between craft and art that should be considered. Firstly, craftspeople and sculptors produce entirely different results. Craft is more decorative and mindful of the material while sculpture is more conceptually tied to history and world art issues. Second, craft has a different set of values, different  kinds of objects, and operates in a different paradigm of history. Lastly, art is limitless and sometimes permissive. Anything can be art (i.e. a urinal), but not everything can be craft.

He also claims that craft has 4 identities. Craft is most always hand made by people. Craft is medium-specific, tried and tested over the ages. Craft is defined by use. And lastly, craft is defined by the past and tradition. He does not consider this a weakness but a strong point, a way of differentiating art from craft. You know the situation has to be pretty bad if the field cannot even define its own practice.

But the brunt of his argument is about Modernism–how it took over the art world after the first World War and things have never been the same since. He says that Modernism demands autonomy in art. That’s why every craft piece in a museum typically seems different from traditional craft. They seek after autonomy. 

“Ultimately, Modernism redefined art… Anything else–the craftness of craft, the social and psychological uses of an object, the meanings that people project upon the things they love–does not fall within the realm of art. And if it’s not art, according to the rules of Modernism, it cannot cause an aesthetic experience, it’s not worth looking at seriously, and it’s not really worth doing.” According to Metcalf, Modernism changed the art world so that craft fit in less—and so it’s no wonder they envy art, as artist-status is what craftspersons long for again. 

“It should be clear that I am no friend of modernism,” he says in the summary of his essay. He thinks it did more damage than good. …objects [that cater to Modernism] have surrendered many of art’s–and craft’s–important purposes: to remind ordinary people of their position in the cosmos; to point to meaning; to be used; to help; to heal; to entertain. Those functions were discarded in the name of the self-rewarding aesthetic experience, and it’s high time craftsmen reclaim them.” I would have to say that I don’t think I have come across an article that blames a movement for craft’s behavior, save the Industrial Revolution and the machine perhaps. It was interesting to read this take on it. Perhaps what is more interesting to me is that he does not apologize for craft’s backward-looking perspective. He deems it the strength of craft and the very characteristic that defines it as a separate thing from art.

The traditional roles of craft offer rich possibilities, if only they can be reshaped to be relevant to social conditions today. What craft has always done is its strength. The challenge is to consciously, carefully build upon tradition.” People sometimes complain that craft does not tie into art history or theory the way it should. Tradition can give us roots and can also bloom into new traditions. Tradition does not always hold us back but gives us history to tie into. This is an interesting take on what craft should do to rid itself of art envy. I think this essay deserves a second, more thorough read in the future. 

 

“War–what is it good for? Absolutely knitting!”

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Knitting is one of those activities that for years has been equated to female hobby work. It falls in line next to other hobbies such as crocheting, embroidery, sewing, etc. These crafts are not only hobbies but also livelihoods; they provide the textiles we use to clothe ourselves, keep warm, keep clean, and so on. For years, that has been their main use. But since the early 2000s, knitting (and other textile crafts) has blown up in popularity. Looking at Betsy Greer’s essay titled Craftivist History, it would appear that one of the main reasons why is because of Activism. Craft can be a vehicle to opening people’s eyes to issues in the world.

“…I began to think more and more about the intrinsic connection between the words craft and activism. Both of the terms tended to produce strong reactions, but what if they melded in such a way that allowed and encouraged people to use imagery and creativity as their activism?…What if they could each use the energy created by the other to take on a new idea?” With craft being the “younger child not taken seriously by art” and activism being a scary word that reminds people of protestation, riots, and law enforcement, it is so far fetched that it just might work. 

I think about other artists we have read about like Sabrina Gschwandtner, Liz Collins, Allison Smith, and Cat Mazza. In short I think I can say that these ladies use craft (typically knit-ware) to address political issues. Everything I read paired knitting with politics, or more correctly, activism. I wonder why this seems to be the only type of knitting that is even remotely taken seriously as art? Any other knitting seems to rank in a very low class of craft, spoken about in hushed tones and usually coupled with whispered words of craft fairs and Etsy. My question is not why other knit-wares are not found in galleries, but rather what is the big deal with knitting (and other textile arts) centering around activism?

Well, I think that the textile arts are something that many people are familiar with. Techniques and knowledge are passed down from one to another through the years. My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was quite young; I still remember her sitting with me in the back room and pulling the needle and thread up through the fabric so far and so quickly (I was scared she would stick her eye or her cheek, every time)! My mother showed me how to push fabric through a sewing machine not long after. Sarah Williamson (my art mentor, 10 years my senior) taught me how to crochet when I was a sophomore in college. So as you can see, textile skills are usually passed from woman to woman and they make us feel as though we are capable of making or fixing something. 

Maybe that is why textiles are frequently used for activism; they darn holes, keep us warm, emanate love and care. I think of Marianne Jorgensen and the Cast Off Knitters with their Pink M.24 Chaffee–an army tank covered with pink squares of knit yarn. Suddenly something used for destruction and intimidation becomes an image of warmth and coziness, even happiness. Betsy Greer wraps it up for me when she says that craftism is the idea that creativity can be a catalyst for change. Craft draws people in communally; it is easily recognizable and familiar. It is something that others can take part in. Because of this, I suppose it makes sense to utilize it in such a way that will draw people in to matters ongoing in the world that might otherwise be forgotten.

Thoughts on the Red Clay Rambler’s interview with Molly Hatch

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Did you know that Tales of a Red Clay Rambler provides free podcasts on iTunes? Neither did I, until a couple of weeks ago. A whole list of podcast interviews with ceramic artists are at my disposal. The most recent is an interview with Molly Hatch; I had no hesitations starting there. Molly Hatch’s name had been dropped a couple of months ago in Craft class as an example of an artist who had perhaps “sold out.” Some said she sold out by creating a line of work for a popular company called Anthropologie; instead of making all her own wares and hand painting her intricate designs, she decided to let industry in and in effect, lost some sort of value in the art world. But after hearing her speak about her work, I would argue that something else has happened entirely. We will begin with her work in the High Museum of Art (located in Atlanta, Georgia).

“High Museum of Art–” the very name screams of fine art snobbery, doesn’t it? That is a wholly different argument. Hatch speaks of her new project Physic Garden, which is an ongoing exhibition at the High currently. There are 456 plates hanging on the surface of an entire wall. Each plate is a puzzle piece in the greater picture that spans the mounted tableware. This piece directly references 18th century Chelsea Factory plates–items of distinguished value among the high class of a time period filled with very clear class separations (a time of slavery and plantations).

Why did she use 456 plates as a canvas for this humongous, well…essentially it is a painting. “I want people [of all levels of artistic understanding] to walk in…and feel comfortable understanding it through the accessibility of a dinner plate…we all know what that is.” Really, her work is more about painting and drawing. The question she was asking herself (and I have found myself asking this about my work as well) was this: “How do I make an object into a drawing?”

Hatch is referencing historical patterns, imported goods for the high class, but she flips and tweaks it to making her work accessible to all audiences by using a low-class material low fire earthenware (in comparison to a fine porcelain, which is what those 18th century plates were made from, that is low class). I think Hatch’s backstory is interesting and gives a lot of perspective for the work she makes. She grew up in a dairy farming family; they worked hard, but had very nice decorative objects. She said her parents rejected the wealth they came from but also embraced. She said all her clothes came from the Salvation Army and they ate a lot of beef and cabbage, but the objects they were surrounded with were rather high class decorative. “I understood wealth through object,” Hatch says. This transfers into her work.

She feels as though she is in the same position of the 18th century artisan. Here she is making $50,000 sculptures that the average person will never buy; instead, these projects are funded by the high class. The part where some people wonder if she sold out is when Anthropologie asked her to sell wholesale to them. She realized she couldn’t attempt to be a factory without losing the integrity of her work and was unwilling to do so. She was willing to work with them as a designer, however, because at the time money was tight and she just could produce on that scale. Being the designer of ceramic tableware and then allowing someone else to take over the production was appealing. I love how she explains it:

“If they can make it for $15 a cup, why am I killing myself for the people who can afford a $70 cup? Which in itself is another inherent class problem. We might save, and take the time to save, to buy the cups because we care so deeply as potters or ceramic artists, or as collectors, or as people who are educated about what goes into the hand made, but for the most part most people can’t tell the difference when I put the two pieces, the prototype and the final product, next to each other, because the integrity of what I had intended the pot to do is all there.”

It took a lot of pressure off of her, and suddenly her friends could afford her work. “If that’s not a sign enough of what people value and how they value it…” she trailed off to talk about something else. She makes a very fair point, doesn’t she? It traces back to her sculptural work in the fact that she is trying to make accessible the high class things in life. Personally, if I told my friends how much a mug of mine would cost they would pull back too. But if my work could be perfectly replicated but still wholly designed by me, my gosh, they would be lining up to buy the dinnerware set for 12. It isn’t as if other artists haven’t done the same thing (enlisting other craftspersons to produce the work, then stamping their name on it). Molly Hatch hasn’t sold out. She simply uses industry as an important tool in her tool kit, enabling her to reach a multitude of people.