Another typical sequence of change occurs when members of an established world already generally defined as “art,” people involved in the typical ac tivities and ideologies of a contemporary art world, invade (and the military metaphor is appropriate) an established craft world and especially its art segment. The sequence begins when some fine artists look for new media in which to explore a current expressive problem. These artists happen on one of the crafts and see in its materials and techniques a potential for artistic exploitation. They see a way to do something that will interest the art world to which they are oriented and to which they respond. They have no interest in the conventional standard of practical utility; their notion of beauty is likely to be very different from and “more advanced” than that of the craft they are invading and the kind of skill and control they are inter- ested in quite different from that prized by the more traditional practitioner.Order now
The new breed of artists in this craft produce altogether new’ standards, standards that are aggressively nonutilitarian. That is, they arc interested only in the utilities defined by the art world in which they participate. Art utilities typically include usefulness as objects of aesthetic contemplation, of collection and ostentatious display, and as items of investment and pecuniary gain. They do not include practical utilities defined by the pur- poses and organization of other worlds. Artists invading a craft want to make sure that the works they produce cannot be used as people have been ac- customed to using them. Robert Arneson, for example, one of the leading spirits in the movement which claimed pottery as a fine art field (Zack 1970), made a series of large plates, technically quite competent, whose utility was destroyed by the large brick which sat in the middle of each one, slowly sink- ing into the surface as the series progressed. In another instance, a group of artists gained control of a ceramic department in an art school. The new chairman announced decisively that from then on they would make no high-firc pottery in the department. His point was that they would no longer make clay objects tliat had any utility, because only high-fire pottery will hold water and thus be useful for domestic purposes: cups, glasses, dishes, vases, and so on. By insisting that only low-fire pottery be made, he in effect announced that what they would do from then on was some version of contemporary sculpture. Lest anyone miss the point, he elaborated by saying, “We are not going to make any vessels.” Just as the standard of utility is devalued, so too arc old craft standards of skill. What the older artist-craftsman has spent a lifetime learning to do just so is suddenly hardly worth doing.
People are doing his work in the sloppiest possible way and being thought superior to him just because of it. Instead of adhering to the conventional craft criteria, which of course turn up in somewhat different form, the artists who enter a craft field pro pose, rely on, and organize their own work according to criteria characteristic of worlds conventionally defined as high art. For instance, in the art versions of any of these media, uniqueness of the object is prized. Artists and their publics think that no two objects produced by an artist should be alike. But for good craftsmen that is not a consideration; indeed it is thought a mark of the artist-craftsman’s control that he can make things as much alike as he does. People who pay $200 for a small, beautifully turned bowl will not feel cheated if they find there is another more or less like it. What they bought exhibits the virtuoso craftsmanship they paid for. But if they had bought the same bowl on the assumption that it was a unique work of art, they would feel enormously cheated to find that there were two. So artists who work in these media sell their conception and its execution in that medium and take care to be obvious about how each of their pieces differs from all the others. No one wants to buy a copy from an artist, only from a craftsman.
The new standards artists create insure that a work’s only utility will be as art: to be admired, appreciated, and experienced. The artists denounce the “mere virtuosity” of the old school of craftsmen. They discover and create a conscious continuity with work in other areas of art, especially in the traditional areas of painting and sculpture. They announce their inde pendence of others’ ideas of what their work should consists of and denounce any attempt to fasten on them the requirements of utility. What they do usually requires a great deal of skill and control, but the skills needed are usually of a deliberately different kind from those prized by cither ordinary craftsmen or artistcraftsmen and often arc hidden as well.
Marilyn Levine, for instance, has achieved a considerable reputation for ceramic sculptures of shoes, boots, and other leather objects which look so much like real leather that you have to tap them and hear the ring to be convinced that they are clay; they work in part because of the contradiction between what they look like and what they arc made of. Indeed it becomes a virtue not to display conventional craft virtuosity, and the artist may deliberately create crudities (the making of the crudities may itself involve considerable virtu osity, though not the same kind as that of the craftsman), either for their shock value or to show that he is free of that particular set of conventional constraints. Defining their work as art, the artists who adopt craft materials and tech niques create and accommodate themselves to a different social organization from that which grows up around a craft. Craft organization subordinates the craftsman to an employer, at whose insistence and for whose purposes the work is done.
But the contemporary folk definition of art presumes that the artist works for no one, that the work is produced in response to prob lems intrinsic in the development of the art and freely chosen by the artist. Organizationally, of course, the artist is no such heroic individualist: he operates in a setting of institutional constraints which vary from time to time and place to place. Some art worlds operated through a system of church and royal patronage in which the artist found it expedient to take account of the tastes and desires of noted patrons. Contemporary artists, enmeshed in a world of collectors, galleries, and museums, typically produce with no particular purchaser in mind and expect their work to be marketed through the conventional apparatus of dealers and museums, the purchaser exercising control by buying or refusing to buy. Whatever the organizational form, the folk definition further presumes that these purchasers and inter- mediaries arc as concerned as the artist with the utilities defined by the art world and therefore with problems and topics defined within rather than outside the current art world. These presumptions are often violated, but they are the model to which artists orient themselves. Fine art photographers, for example, do a greater variety of work, less constrained by the requirements of organizations in which they work, than do those who work in such craftoriented areas as advertising and fashion photography or photojournalism (Rosenblum 1973). Artists working in con- ventional craft media are similarly relatively freer than artist-craftsmen who work in the same media, both in the diversity of objects they make and in the variety and whimsicality of the ideological explanations they offer for their work.
The objects typically display great continuity with current trends in such contemporary high art worlds as painting and sculpture, and the talk both calls attention to that continuity and displays at least superficial in difference to being intelligible or rational. I take this latter characteristic to express a posture of indifference to public acceptance characteristic of many contemporary artists. Here are some examples. Arneson has made many pieces which are in fact sculpture: a typewriter, somewhat sagged out of shape and rough around the edges, whose keys represent red painted fingernails a series of self-portraits, smoking a cigar or with the skull opened to reveal various contents; an enormous table covered with dishes of food, standing in front of a life-sized portrait of the artist in a chef’s hat, all glazed a pure unrelieved white. To an observer familiar with the con- ventions of contemporary sculpture and ceramics, these pieces look not quite like sculpture but more like ceramics. Aggressively not utilitarian pottery, they nevertheless call attention to themselves as pottery through the rough modeling of the clay and the gaudy glazes. Some of their effect lies in the ambiguity so created. Other pieces are utilitarian in principle but not quite in fact. An example is Arneson’s teapot whose spout is a realistically modeled penis; you can pour tea from it, but not for everyone.