tea bowl by Ogata Kenzan, the Rembrandt of Japanese ceramic artists*
I was reading a discussion on Artblog that got into the difference between illustration and fine art. The discussion started with a link to some new paintings by Walter Darby Bannard, artist and writer, in the course of which the word “illustration” was used in a somewhat pejorative way. I thought to myself, “I’ve heard that argument before”. Substituting “craft” for “illustration”, it reminded me of the craft/art debate. I was primed for this after listening to Garth Clark’s talk on “How Envy Killed the Crafts”, recently delivered at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, and also my recent discovery of Bruce Metcalf’s new blog, CraftGadfly. So this is what I posted ( comment # 160):
Some of this discussion about illustration reminds me of the “craft vs. art” debate that takes place in the contemporary craft world. That debate seems tiresome, if not specious to me, but nevertheless reflects some truths about the current art world, if not art. Sculptor Martin Puryear said that art doesn’t need craft, though an exploraton of craft is essential to his work. I think he is surely correct. When artists who come from the traditional crafts make it in the contemporary art arena – Betty Woodman and Josiah McIlheney are examples – they are often considered to have broken through to Valhala, mainly because the “rewards program” is better, as ceramics dealer Garth Clark has put it, and sometimes those who don’t cross over to Chelsea or Art Basel are seen to be existing in a kind of purgatory. Allison Elizabeth Taylor’s marquetry pictures are another example, though Allison seems to have appropriated craft technique to go directly to Chelsea. This turns some craft artists back to the defense of an idea of pure craft, and misty references to the modern craft “movement”, steeped sometimes in no small amount of nostalgia, and for some, a sense that the “art world” just doesn’t give a hoot about them anyway, which is true. The recent rise of design stars like Marc Newsom and Ron Arad only confuses the issue, although Clark points out that design and craft are natural allies, and he says that craft artists who wish to make it in the larger art world should leave the craft field.
Many of these arguments are about the art world, the art business, and don’t have much to do with art really, except in the following way: in the 60′s and 70′s, with the advent of conceptual art, contemporary art incorporated theory into its practice, “It could be argued that one of the reasons for the problem of criticism today is its redundancy when changes in art practice, notably Conceptual art, displaced criticism from its role in relation to the avant-garde by incorporating critique – including the critique of a descriptive, objectifying epistemology into the practice itself: art theory replaces art criticism as the appropriate way of mediating the practice, and is often carried out by the artists themselves” – Michael Newman from The State of Art Criticism. This refers to the notion that the contemporary work of art is supposed to incorporate a critical (theoretical) position. To this observer however, the rigors of 70′s conceptual art are often merely a holdover, a grab bag of labels almost, as generations of young artists have been spoon fed theory by their academic teachers. Some of the best artists will have absorbed those lessons and incorporated them into their objects, but it must be done with a sure touch. Like Puryear’s sculpture, the craft object must be about more than an idea. Another way of stating this might be to say that conceptual art drew attention to the fact that all art is conceptual. It seems pointless to try to divide the brain into the part that thinks and the part that sees, surely a life of looking at art teaches us that.
Anyway, the comparison with illustration isn’t perfect, but I find it interesting to consider. The mention of japanese prints earlier in the discussion ( are they illustration or art?) was also interesting to me because my perfect art object is the japanese tea bowl – a utilitarian object that, in its time and place, often contained high art – which can carry beauty, utility, ceremony, cultural history, human history. What more could you want?
*the reverse side of this remarkable bowl bears a poem:
Billowing forth, white like snow;
Then a river that flows for all eternity.