Arts and crafts

July 12, 2016

There’s an interesting (and characteristically thoughtful and
well-written) article by Amber Donofrio in last week’s Ithaca Times.
The subject is “Fifteen: Celebrating 15 Years of the Quilt Divas,” a
fascinating and often superb exhibit up at the Community School of
Music and Arts through June and July. (Go see it if you haven’t.) And
I sympathize with her desire to question the distinction between art
and craft, with all its gender-laden baggage.

But I’ve found—and it seems that she has found—that the
distinction doesn’t go away just because you want it to. That is, the
terms that she uses to praise the work in the show are precisely those
that have traditionally been used to separate art from craft: i.e.
individualism, innovation, and an independent (but informed)
relationship to tradition and convention. It’s not that there’s any
reason to believe these things have ever been wholly absent in
so-called craft. But the emphasis on these things here—and the
presentation of these works in a gallery space—marks these things as
“art”. (Also, as usual at the CSMA, there’s a preponderance of
wall-mounted work.) How does one escape this?

Now, I don’t believe that it’s desirable or even coherent to draw a
rigid distinction between the two. And the notion of banning work from
the realm of art based on material or technique or “functional” status
is a non-starter. But if you’re going to use the notion of “art”—and I
think it remains a compelling one—then the distance from “merely”
decorative or functional work comes along for free. These are thing we
have to work with.

Personally, I’m interested in writing about pictorial art (and to a
lesser extent, sculpture, which I think does something related.) And
yes, I believe that this is “a thing”: roughly an arrangement of marks
on a flat surface that creates an illusion of virtual,
three-dimensional space. (The British philosopher of art Paul Crowther
discusses this brilliantly, in this book and elsewhere.) I think
pictures—and particularly the sorts of pictures we designate as
art—are powerful things. They engage the human mind in ways that
bedspreads and wallpaper typically do not. (Although this clearly has
a lot to do with presentation.) And so I think that any critique
of traditional notions of art that doesn’t acknowledge this power is
likely to fall flat.

I also like abstract art, which I think of as a species of
picture-making. The making of geometric patterning—whether conceived
of as art or not—is an ancient human activity. And there’s no reason
to see modern abstract art as something entirely separate from such
traditions. The human mind (also a thing) makes associations based on
common experience. The artistic use of lines and shapes and colors
necessarily draws off of this. (See this book for a defense of such
ideas.) But the twentieth-century abstract tradition uses this common
stock in a new way. It allows geometry to be pictorial—and
expressive—in a newly robust sort of way. (I’m thinking about this in
relation to this show, which I am writing about.)

Much of the work in “Fifteen” is intelligible as abstract art and I
believe Donofrio is correct to approach it in this way. And the
tendency, it seems, is to arrive at abstraction by means of
traditional quilting motifs and/or techniques. Which is all well and
good—indeed, a source of strength. But the sense of distance doesn’t
go away, or at least not for me it doesn’t.

Anyway, the best way to work all of this out (to the extent that
that’s possible) is not by pontificating so much as by making things
and looking and the things that other people have made.

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