Monday, April 20, 2009

Arts or Crafts or both?

"Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery. This conception changed during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as 'a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science'. Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions." - Wikipedia, Definition of Art


The Romantic Period is usually thought of as the period from 1815 to 1910. Another name for this time span is "The Industrial Revolution." In fact, the Romantics opposed the Industrial Revolution, which created the very wealth and leisure time which allowed them to lie around, smoke dope, dabble in poetry, and define art as ethereal and purely useless except for its intrinsic beauty.

This is the period of the great collections that eventually filled the museums of the world with gorgeous pieces of culture (for the most part stolen, figuratively or literally). This is also the period in which the "history of art," was defined.

Today "Fine Art" is basically comprised of stuff with no intrinsic use, created for rich people and wannabees to collect (thus Thomas Kinkade). Sometimes-vast amounts of money are spent on Fine Art created by The Masters. Vincent van Gogh could have gotten the help he needed to avoid cutting off his ear for the price of half of one of his pieces today. El Greco could have had his vision fixed. Did Michelangelo make a living from the patronage provided by the Medici's or a couple of Popes? It depends on what you call a "living." If he knew how much his paintings and sculptures are worth now, he would probably be spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electricity.

"Art" and "artist" must, like everything else, be defined in terms of self and other. These days, many define "fine artists" as only sculptors and painters. All other artists are therefore, by default, artisans or craftspeople -- anything but true artists. By this definition:

  • Cellini, whose works in gold are no less gorgeous than a painting by Raphael, is relegated to the back seat as a "mere" artisan*.

  • The Unicorn Tapestries have become mere "folk art."

  • The Taj Mahal is "just" a really nice example of the mechanics of architecture.
Sarah Natani, my Navajo weaving teacher, raises her own sheep, sheers them herself with the help of her older sister, cards and spins the wool and dyes it with natural plant dyes (also hand-gathered). Only then does she weave gorgeous pieces from a traditional perspective. How is this any less art than Leonardo?

It is my contention that it is not. Sarah Natani's blankets and rugs are every bit as much art as are the works of Leonardo, El Greco, Michelangelo or any other of The Masters. In fact, the quantity or collectability of any creation should not be considered as a part of the definition of "art." Wood carving, goldsmithing, ironworks, architecture -- and yes, my particular bailiwick, fiber art -- should all be considered as fine as any other art.

Many artists of all types complain about making a viable income from their art. One caveat I might make is that few artists who were popular in their own time wind up in museums. On the other hand, our shop has had to convert from a yarn shop with some weavers to a weaving shop with some yarn, due to demand for our finished goods. Our works do not come cheaply. The plainest, single thickness saddle blanket that I make sells for $299. Patricia's shawls range between $200-$600. Does this provide a living? Yes. We are not extravagant people, so we are not making a killing. I would rather make a living than a killing, anyway. Our marketing strategy could best be distilled to: confidence and patience. We believe that wider acclaim will come with time and have no problem demanding and getting the prices we ask.

We are both studying Rio Grande weaving at Northern New Mexico College. We read everything we can get our hands on and have taken many classes with those who are considered maestras of these techniques. There is plenty of opportunity for learning, whether at the guild level or at the level of internationally known teachers.

One can address a further distinction: Are production crafts (which make multiple copies of the same thing) and one of a kind (OOAK) creations both worthy of the distinction "art?" This is mostly, I suppose, a matter personal taste. I rather tend to think that OOAK pieces are art and the other is not (after all, my pieces are all OOAK); but Bauhaus weaver Annie Albers would disagree with me. However, this may be a discussion for another day.

My concern about "the arts" is less about what is or isn't art and more about the discrepancy between what is paid for "women's arts" and "men's arts." That is one of the reasons that the local guild is called the Southern Plains Fiber Arts. We uphold the idea that the fiber arts are that: art. Both the guild and our shop do many, many demonstrations at schools, heritage events and fairs, as well as at museums. We also reach out to younger people who might not find these art forms otherwise. We get a great response.

To me, raised as I was on the particular utilitarian beauty that is known as the American Arts and Crafts movement, I cannot help but agree with the main proponent of the parallel English ideal:

"Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful." - William Morris, (1837-1896)


* Photo is Cellini's "Saliere," a particularly fabulous salt cellar. - Wikipedia, Cellini.

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