Art and Craft Politics

If it has a use, it is a craft item. If it doesn’t, it’s art.

This is a definition that holds up in high school art classes, galleries, auction houses and all kinds of other places too. I once held an ashtray made by Picasso. Had it been a tiny painting, it would have been under lock and key, and hugely valuable, but an ashtray isn’t art. It was, however, beautiful.

Now, take a moment and consider these questions. Who produces art? Who makes craft items? Who chooses what to spend the money on?

Art is made to be sold to an art market. That’s its sole purpose. At the top end, it’s made to be sold to galleries, companies, wealthy individuals, or it is commissioned for public spaces. Its function is to be decorative, impressive, inspiring, and/or to be a show of wealth and power. The vast majority of famous artists are and were men. There’s an aura of exclusivity about Art, and most of us ‘ordinary’ people couldn’t afford to own any. We buy the poster versions.

Craft items are made to be used. We’re talking Shaker boxes, painted pots, baskets, blankets, rugs, clothing, pottery, decorated furniture… the fine art of using ordinary materials to make your home beautiful. Crafts belong very much to poorer people, to indigenous people, folk traditions. Crafts are often the domain of women.

Every now and then some group of indigenous people, or a folk movement (Shakers for example) become unexpectedly sexy and then collectors want a piece of it, but on the whole, things made for use are treated as secondary to things made purely for decoration. I do not believe this has anything to do with skill, or quality of work (I’ve been in modern art galleries….) and everything to do with class and gender politics.

There is an important green issue to raise here too. Things that are made purely to be things, art for art’s sake is, from a certain perspective, just stuff and clutter. And on the flip side, just because a thing has a function, that’s no excuse for making it ugly and depressing. (Can I mention car parks?) There’s so much fair traded house clutter out there, and that seems to defeat the object of green living in so many ways. Beautiful things made to serve a purpose, are inherently useful and lovely to live with. We have finite resources. Many of us have finite spending power as well, and finite amounts of space to put things on and in. Given the choice, I’d rather have a thing that is both beautiful and useful.

2 thoughts on “Art and Craft Politics”

  1. There are useful things that weren’t even made to be looked at when used — at the time, they were merely “technology”.

    One friend has a side-table, actually used as a plant display table, that consists of legs added to a bellows from Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben‘s factory. It looks like just a beautiful old heart-shaped piece of wood on top, with some odd projections to the side, and accordion-folds underneath… but, oh, the proud history!


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