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Crafts in a Muddle   1      2      3      4      5      6      -      PRINTER VERSION

Published in New Art Examiner, February 1987.

The recent opening of the American Craft Museum's new space across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in New York focused an unprecedented amount of attention on the craft world. The museum's opening and its inaugural exhibition, Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical, have been covered extensively by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine, to name only a few. NBC's Today show even had Willard Scott do his weather reports from the museum one morning—you know you have arrived in popular culture when that happens.

Craft Today was organized and curated by Paul Smith, the museum's director since 1963. Smith put together an exhibition of some 300 works by 286 craftspeople from 36 states working in what are commonly referred to as "craft media"—clay, fiber, glass, wood, and metal. Craft Today may well be the landmark exhibition that the American Craft Museum says it is, but not for the reasons the museum expects. It is certainly, however, the largest survey of contemporary craft since the 1969 Objects/USA exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts (presently the National Museum of American Art). Now that the dust has settled and the hype and PR have died down, we can start to look at this exhibition and assess its impact on the craft field. Most important, has it aided craft's struggle for commercial and critical acceptance from the more celebrated fine arts, and, if so, at what cost?

One of the biggest problems for those working in the craft genre who desire to be taken as serious artists (not fine artists, but artists within the context of craft rather than that of painting or sculpture) is how to convince those skeptical or ignorant power brokers in the fine arts establishment that a cup, a plate, or a piece of furniture can have content—that these objects can be "proper" vehicles for the conveyance of artistic expression without becoming non-functional caricatures of themselves. Part of the resistance on the part of the fine arts establishment to this idea is a by-product of crafts own cavalier attitude toward and ambivalence about its own identity, as well as crafts lack of critical rigor or a developed critical vocabulary. For these reasons, many in the fine arts find it difficult to believe that craft, like painting and sculpture, has its own rich language with a long and varied history

Intelligent criticism of crafts depends to a great degree on how literate one is in crafts language. Function is one of the most important parts of crafts language and the aspect of craft that the fine arts object to the most. It is crafts ability to function that allows it to be perceived by all of our senses and on a variety of different levels. Function not only gives viewers access to the work, it allows them to become active participants in the aesthetic process itself. By varying its placement and its use, the user's perception of the object is continuously transformed. Function, therefore, is integral to the aesthetic experience of crafts. It does not limit crafts, but rather is what gives crafts the unlimited potential to express a vast range of philosophical and aesthetic concerns.

Function alone, of course, guarantees nothing; it is simply part of the language of craft that the intelligent and articulate craftsperson uses to create eloquent and poetic statements. It is unfortunate that the fine arts, as is the case with many groups whose own language has achieved primary status and
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