Friday, April 13, 2012

Art ? Craft

...what about the need for art to come to craft?” -- Isidora Spielmann

Before heading to The Mansion in Kingston for a panel discussion entitled Art ? Craft yesterday, I happened to read an article on this very topic in the spring newsletter from MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, Winnipeg). In ‘No More Bins,’ a reference to Laurie Anderson’s eschewing of unnecessary categorization, author and craft-based artist Heidi Eigenkind says her “deep seated aversion to binary structures” (1) surfaces when someone makes a comment like ‘some potholders are just potholders.’ It’s interesting that some people can see the distinction between art and craft so simply while others—like last night’s panelists from the Organization of Kingston Women Artists, Diane Black, Margaret Hughes, and Isidora Spielmann—are struck by the complexity of their relationship.

Margaret Hughes observed that art and craft are starting to merge again, reminding us of their parallel status and professional integration in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I have to agree; as I wrote in a post about a textiles show at Project Space last fall, “craft and art have become rather comfortable bedfellows.” What does it mean, though, when someone can’t admit who they’re sleeping with? What does it say about me that the first time I crossed the border with my textiles sculptures, I referred to them as ‘craft’ rather than ‘art’ even though I have always thought of them as the latter? On a subconscious level, I must have assumed the customs official would be more willing to approve their admission to the US. And I’m sure I’m not the only fibre artist who has hesitated about responding to a call for submissions for a craft show because of how it will affect the perception of my art long-term. These examples suggest that the art/craft question is not an inconsequential one.

Isidora Spielmann noted that it’s common to talk about the need for craft to come to art, but what about the need for art to come to craft? Damien Hurst was cited as an example of a conceptual artist who is relatively divorced from the process of making. It brings to mind Mira Schor writing in Wet (Duke University Press, 1997) that all artists can’t seriously go “back to scraping sheet gut every time you need a sheet of tracing paper.” (2) Yet there’s something inspiring about Margaret Hughes having built not one but two kilns by hand and Diane Black being a modern day blacksmith. Schor has a good point when she says it wouldn’t be a terrible fate if painting, long the golden child of the art world, were to become ‘relegated’ to the realm of craft.

All three artists have approached a variety of media with fervour, aiming to perfect their technique and to infuse their work with meaning. They’ve switched between art and craft over time, and they feel comfortable in both worlds. What can we make of hybrid examples like Spielmann’s couture garments on which she has painted by hand, or of Hughes’ inclusion of her own pots in her still lives? The waters are muddy indeed, which poses a challenge for art librarians like myself in terms of cataloguing images, but it’s exciting to see this cross-over. Clearly, these are artists to whom the dismissive statement, ‘some potholders are just potholders’ does not apply.


(1) p. 5.
(2) p. 185.

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