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    Craft and Art Essay (1778 words)

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    As a work ideology, an aesthetic, and a form of work organization, craft can and does exist independent of art worlds, their practitioners, and their defini tions. In the pure folk definition, a craft consists of a body of knowledge and skill which can be used to produce useful objects: dishes one can eat from, chairs one can sit in, cloth that makes serviceable clothing, plumbing that works, electrical wiring that carries current. From a slightly different point of view, it consists of the ability to perform in a useful way: to play music that can be danced to, serve a meal to guests efficiently, arrest a criminal with a minimum of fuss, clean a house to the satisfaction of those who live in it. To speak of usefulness implies the existence of a person whose purposes define the ends for which the objects or activities will be useful. Those pur poses arise in some world of collective action in which they arc characteristic, part of the definition of what kind of world it is. Serving a meal to guests efficiently might, for instance, be part of the world of commercial catering, in which the development of a stable clientele who can be fed at a profit is the end in view. Or it might be part of one’s domestic world, in which case the object is to satisfy the appetites for food and graceful social intercourse of one’s family, friends, and acquaintances.

    In both cases, utility is measured by a standard which lies outside the world that is or might have been con structed around the activity itself. For there is a world of haute cuisine and etiquette which treats the enjoyment of food and its service as ends in them selves, the measurement of utility referring to standards developed and ac cepted by knowledgeable participants in that world. (The distinction be tween utilities which are part of the world constructed around the activity itself and those measured by standards imported from other worlds—call them “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” or “practical” utilities—will occupy us throughout.) Defining craft as the knowledge and skill which produce useful objects and activities implies both an aesthetic, standards on which judgments of par ticular items of work can be based, and an organizational form in which the evaluative standards find their origin and logical justification. The organiza tional form is one in which the worker does his work for someone else usually a client, customer, or employer—who defines what is to be done and what the result should be.

    The employer understands that the worker  possesses special skills and knowledge but regards it as appropriate to have the final say himself as to the suitability of the result. The worker may know better ways of doing things, not known to someone outside the craft, but recognizes the employer’s right to the final word. Both recognize that the object of the activity is to make something the employer can use for his purposes, whatever they may be. Although a worker sometimes makes things for his own use, that does not alter the point I want to emphasize, that the object is made to serve someone’s need for a useful object. If a person defines his work as done to meet someone else’s practical needs, then function, defined externally to the intrinsic character of the work, is an important ideological and aesthetic consideration. If the piece that is made has no evident or possible practical use or if it is totally unsuited to its ostensible use, the craftsman who made it (a craftsman being someone who accepts the craft ideology I am describing) will probably receive and feel vulnerable to severe criticism from his colleagues. I will give some exam ples later. In addition to function, craftsmen accept a second aesthetic standard: virtuoso skill.

    Most crafts are quite difficult, with many years required to master the physical skills and mental disciplines of a first class practitioner. One who has mastered the skills—an expert—has great control over the craft’s materials, can do anything with them, can work with speed and agility, can do with ease things that ordinary, less expert craftsmen find difficult or impossible. A potter, for instance, may be able to throw pots with walls so thin that other potters would be unable to prevent them from col lapsing. Conversely, he may be able to throw great masses of clay other pot ters would find impossible to control. The specific object of virtuosity varies from field to field, but it always involves an extraordinary control of materi als and techniques. Sometimes virtuosity also includes mastering a wide variety of techniques, being able not only to do things better than most others but also to do more things. Virtuoso craftsmen take pride in their skill and arc honored for it in the craft and sometimes by outsiders.

      That an object is useful, that it required virtuoso skill to make neither of these precludes it from also being thought beautiful. Some crafts in fact generate from within their own tradition a feeling for beauty and with it appropriate aesthetic standards and canons of taste. Both makers and users think that some furniture is beautiful in addition to being useful and that they can tell the difference. Not many people care to make these fine dis- tinctions with respect to household craft objects, but those who do add beauty to utility and virtuosity as a third criterion of judgment which they embody and maintain in their daily activities. Beauty becomes an additional criterion which connoisseurs use in forming judgments and workers try to satisfy. By accepting beauty as a criterion, participants in craft activities take on  a concern characteristic of the folk definition of art. I will not try to enumer ate all the elements of that folk definition here but will simply indicate that it includes an emphasis on beauty as typified in the tradition of some particular art, on the traditions and concerns of the art world itself as the source of value, on expression of someone’s thoughts and feelings, and on the relative freedom of the artist from outside interference with his work. Concerning the last element, the folk definition acknowledges, implicitly though usually not explicitly, that other participants in the art world—patrons, dealers, curators, and critics, for instance—will in fact if not in theory constrain the artist’s expressive freedom substantially.

    Because some craftsmen accept beauty as a criterion, the organizational form of craft worlds becomes more complicated and differentiated than it might otherwise be. Crafts ordinarily divide along the line between the ordinary craftsman trying to do decent work and make a living and the artist-craftsman with more ambitious goals and ideologies. Ordinary crafts men usually respect artist-craftsmen and see them as the source of innovation and original ideas. The two types not only have distinct ways of carrying on the craft but also constitute distinct groups of people, since workers tend to identify themselves as one or the other and to adopt fairly exclusively one or the other mode of activity. The ordinary craftsman, I think, docs not take the criterion of beauty very seriously. Busy satisfying the demands of a variety of jobs and customers, he contents himself that the pipes he installs carry water, that the bookcase he builds is sturdy and fits in the space he measured for it, that the meal is served expeditiously.

    I have deliberately, of course, chosen examples from crafts in which the idea of beauty seldom enters anyone’s calculations, at least in the conventional sense connected with such high arts as painting and sculpture.  Some craftsmen (a current list would include potters, weavers, glassblow ers, and furniture makers, to cite the most obvious cases) speak of themselves not just as craftsmen but as artist-craftsmen. The distinction means some thing in these craft worlds. The American Crafts Council identities itself as the organized voice of the artistcraftsman. Its influential magazine, Craft Horizons, emphasizes questions of beauty and artistic merit in contrast with a more purely craft-oriented magazine like Ceramics Monthly. Similar purely craft-oriented magazines may be found for most crafts. Work by artist-craftsmen, with some claim to be considered “art” by the custodians of conventional art—collectors, curators, and gallery owners opens up new organizational settings in which to work and gain support for one’s work. This frees the artist-craftsman in some measure from the con straints embodied in the cmployer-cmployec relationship characteristic of the pure craftsman’s position.

    Under the heading of “minor arts,” beautiful craft objects are displayed in shows and museums, win prizes for their beauty, contribute to the reputations of the craftsmen who make them, become the subject of books and the occasion for demonstrations of “how to do it,” and even furnish the basis on which teaching jobs are given and held. In short, not only do some people care to make the distinction between beautiful and ordinary craft objects, but there are substantial rewards for making more beautiful objects while adhering to craft standards. Artist-craftsmen have higher ambitions than ordinary craftsmen. While they may share the same audiences, institutions, and rewards, they also feel some kinship with fine art institutions. They sec a continuity between what they do and what fine artists do, even though they recognize that they have chosen to pursue the ideal of beauty they share with fine artists in a more limited arena. What constitutes beauty can of course be the subject of con siderable controversy, but it is the third major criterion according to which people judge work and to which they orient their own activity. We might imagine the differentiation of craftsmen and artist-craftsmen as a typical historical sequence.

    A craft world, whose aesthetic emphasizes utility and virtuoso skill and whose members produce works according to the dictates of clients or employers operating in some extracraft world, develops a new segment.2 The new segment’s members add to the basic aesthetic an emphasis on beauty and develop sonic additional organizational elements which in part free them from the need to satisfy employers so com pletely. These artist-craftsmen develop a kind of art world around their ac tivities; we might reasonably call it a “minor art” world. The world contains much of the apparatus of such full-fledged “major arts” as painting or sculpture: shows, prizes, sales to collectors, teaching positions, and the rest. Not all craft worlds develop such an artistic beaut)-oriented segment (plumbing, e.g., has not). But where an art segment develops, it usually co exists peacefully with the more purely utilitarian craft segment.

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