Craft is dead, long live Craft.

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I think this is the first reading I have encountered that I have actually understood from “cover to cover.” It is also the first reading I have been able to read without thinking some parts if not all of it was, pardon my strong opinion, complete bull crap. Garth Clark unapologetically rips craft apart. Some of it is embarrassing, but I see it as completely unavoidable. 

Finally! an essay that explains to me what al this ART vs. CRAFT hubbub is about. I have been wondering why we are still arguing about the rankings of craft for a long time, and I have been hesitant to take any of these writers at their word because most of these readings seem to be decades old. I paid a lot closer attention to How Envy Killed the Crafts because Clark wrote this in 2008.

I still wonder why craft has to be the same as art, or why it is so necessary that we put ourselves on the same playing field with the same worth and meaning. Now for once I don’t feel ashamed for being okay with craft being a different thing entirely from art, because someone who has experienced the recent history of craft with his own hands and witnessed it with his own eyes can show me that craft just never got to that level.

I am completely content to keep craft in a separate realm. As Clark says in his essay, “Design, as long as it kept to its own identity and purpose, was a welcome part of the art club so it had nothing to prove.” If only Craft had the gumption to do the same! He proves to me in this essay that Craft has an identity crisis and is not comfortable in its own skin, desperately longing to be the airbrushed cover girl, Art (which is not to say that art is fake, but that it represents the image that we think we are supposed to look just like).  

Most of these essays I have read and the arguments I have pondered over have left me wondering, “Is what I do as a craftsperson not enough? Do I need more content, more pizzaz, more historical or political references?” I feel like the adolescent girl looking at the front covers of beauty magazines, wondering how to be like the woman before me. In reality, I have different skin, different hair, and a different wallet. Craft is that girl looking in on Art, practically perfect in every way. In reality, Art just wants their style to stop being copied, pinched, pilfered, in a way of speaking.

All this is just to say that I am very much okay with the short list of possibilities that Garth Clark presents at the end of his essay:  “Let go of New York…encourage craft into the 21st century aesthetically…post a definition of craft that is accurate and unambiguous…make the new entity an unwelcoming place for failed sculptors to live…” I would encourage it even if it meant my sculptural work had to be classified in a different place entirely. I would rather Craft became what it could be than stay where it is, and I imagine that when this starts to really come about that it will be a great day for Craft.

Leaving the Toilet Behind Us

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Whether you’re stuck between a toilet and a hard place or just trying to house-train your art, I am sure you have your work cut out for you if you are a ceramist. That seems to be the theme in this week’s readings, anyway. There is a certain desire the “art world” seeks to have fulfilled when it comes to ceramics (the art world being that network of people who define “appropriate art genres,” according to Tanya Harrod in House-trained Objects). Garth Clark in Between a Toilet and a Hard Place is sure that ceramists are far too traditional and in danger of falling of the face of the art world; he also seems convinced that craft in general is long dead, the memory of which is kept alive only through the negligence of such a fact from craft people everywhere.

Garth Clark raises some great questions concerning ceramics specifically in regards to the Avant-Garde movement of mainstream art in the first half of the 20th century. He wonders if it played a part in this movement and if it did, why haven’t we heard about it? If it did not, what made it fail? And the question we all secretly ask ourselves when we read these articles:  does it matter if it did or not? Well let us put that question to rest right now. Of course it matters! According to Clark, Modernism dictates everything we do in our art practice.

I love what he says when he likens craft and modernism to a father and son relationship. I will quote you the whole excerpt:

“We in ceramics are more or less in the position of an adult child who has had a difficult and unresolved relationship with our tough, rejecting father who is now ailing and before he passes on we want him to acknowledge our existence and validity In art, just as in life, resolving such an issue is a profound moment–touching, painful, exorcizing–and key to a healthy self-image in the future…There is a palpable and urgent desire to resolve our difference with Modernism before we enter the promised land of a new era.”

Clark wrote this essay in 1998. I had to remind myself that occasionally as I read through. If I could ask him anything today, I would ask him, “How is that relationship resolution going? Is the promised land of the 2000s all you ever hoped and dreamed for us?” I hardly think we have figured out the Modernism vs. Craft settlement. Of course, such a puzzle seems like it should have to take some time to solve, and he only gave us a couple of years to do it. By definition, if something is going to be Avant-Garde it should be a daunting risk. It seems by the end of his essay that Garth Clark finds that the answer to his initial question is no, ceramics did not contribute to Avant-Garde.

His conclusion is that craft is dead, and those who love it haven’t noticed, dwindling “in contemporary times…to mean ‘pretty materials and clever hands.” That definitely sounds like a contradiction to the term Avant-Garde to me. His essay ends with a call to action, to break out of tradition and become relevant to today’s world. This is simultaneously similar and also quite the opposite of what Glenn Adamson says in some of his writings! Adamson pleas with craft artists to stop catlicking and babying craft because he is sure that craft will make it without our help. We should allow it to flourish naturally in “benign neglect.” Clark’s concern ten years or more before is that we are going to die out. Garth Clark is the guy Adamson is trying to get you not to be!

I think that here in 2014, we are on the road to accomplishing what Garth Clark envisioned, in our own way. I think craft may be an endangered species, and may even have been close to fading away at one point a decade ago, but it is not dead. We are an endangered species kept alive by those sympathetic to our hearts and the things which come forth from them. There are enough people sympathetic to our cause that I do not foresee our extinction in the very near future. If anything, we are now thriving. Much has changed since 1999, most assuredly. We are not a generation infatuated with industrialization anymore. I can only speak for myself, but on the contrary, Mr. Clark, my sweetest inspiration comes from the “romance of Medieval craft guilds.” Industrialization is the farthest thing from exciting to me. In parting I would say that I greatly appreciate the positive outlook he holds, the belief that he has for the future of ceramists, and that his view is unclouded by unrealistic thoughts, hopes, and recommendations. I would like to think that ceramics is on the up and up, and that we are no longer so very stuck between a toilet and hard place.