On How Modernism and Art-Envy is Bad for Craft


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.