Cy Twombly, from “Poems to the Sea” via tate.org.uk
Garth Clark’s talk “How Envy Killed the Crafts” has prompted much thought in the craft community, but I haven’t seen any responses in print or online, so I’d like to venture some thoughts of my own as a little push back to historians. I’m not sure I like it when a historian or critic tells me what I should be – I should be a designer, I should be a manufacturer, I can’t be an artist: “Crafters who want to be artists should leave the field.” The suggestion that craft ally itself with design makes good sense as a practical matter. I take this to mean the design “world”, as a system of practice and distribution. To evoke the art , craft and design worlds as separate arenas serves a purpose. It brings up an image of the commercial spheres that many of us swim through. The historian will describe these spheres as they’ve existed in the past, the critic will read them at the current moment, and if brave enough, will venture suggestions on where we may be headed. This is fair. Some, like Garth Clark and Glenn Adamson, do so with the proper amount of caution backed up with prodigious scholarship and experience, and believe me I hang on every word. In the spirit of cautious predictions then, I offer a concept and a story.
Prompted by James Elkins’ recently posed question “What do artists know?”, I’ve been thinking of the crafts and the fine arts as spheres of knowledge. Now that the craft movement is over, we can see it as a whole – as a collection of experiences and discoveries that constitute a body of knowledge. Similarly in the fine arts, although we usually speak of influence, an individual artist’s work, as well as the larger times they have worked in, can be seen as forms of hard- won knowledge. Is this just semantics or a conceptual amusement? I find it a useful way to describe what artists, designers, crafters do ( I use those words without any particular hierarchy for the moment – the times are too ambiguous to settle this just now). If you consider the work of furniture maker James Krenov or painter Cy Twombly for example, as bodies of knowledge, you can study them as much as you like, and the more you study, the more you can take from them. I hear someone say “Isn’t that what Postmodernism was about?” Well yes, but Postmodernism as a historical period may end up being defined more by it’s particular forms of irony than for a synthesis of good ideas. You can almost date recent arts production by its quality of irony – you have Duchamp’s irony, post-modern irony, post-post-modern, neo-conceptual irony – irony as a marker for connoisseurship. I suppose you could start your study of 20th century irony with Oscar Wilde (who died in 1900).