ART VS. CRAFT
I read Stephanie Ross’s excerpted “Gardens and the Death of Art” in the July issue and was dismayed that the dictums of earlier decades are still finding refuge in critical writing after being largely discredited by many respected art historians and critics. Although Ross’s writing is well-researched and scholarly she has failed to take into account many contributing factors that bear upon her central questions.
First, in her queries concerning the now “moribund” arts of stained glass, gardening, and tapestry she assumes that the authors of objects or products in those media thought about art in the same way we do. Art, as we have come to accept and define it, began a little over two hundred years ago when social and intellectual trends converged, eventually producing “modernity” or the era of enlightenment. With this development came new subjects and areas of interest, among them one called “aesthetics,” the goal of which is to uncover overriding principles of beauty, taste, and truth common to all the arts and make them examples of “fine” art. Until the enlightenment no other society had considered art to be an entity in itself. There was no reason to believe (as we take for granted today) that the makers of paintings, gardens, sculpture, poems, carvings, et cetera belonged to a “super” category called artists” or that their products did either.
During the ensuing generations many scientific and societal changes had a profound effect upon artistic products and because viewers could no longer decipher the intention of the artist a new and most important role was developed of which Ross is a part: the writer/critic. With the rise and necessity of the writer about art, literacy became a requisite for appreciation of the art product. Today theory, its comprehension, and its interpretation have become more important than the work itself. So in order to tell the difference between a pile of stones or a carpet inside a museum or found on the pavement outside or in a carpet store elsewhere one must view those in the museum through a special “lens” of knowledge, made available through theory and disseminated by the printed word. The acceptance of the necessity of theory and interpretation in
appreciating artworks has spawned yet another line of theorists who have lamented the death of art and proclaimed the assumptions about art that I briefly outlined to be invalid. Postmodernists and poststructuralists-i.e., Danto, Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, et alia – are predominantly and unreservedly preoccupied with reading and writing.
Visual arts are concerned with visual issues. Although this should seem obvious, it is obscured by written analysis of the purely visual. As the ceramic sculptor Jan Kaneko has said, “No matter how I tell you about the meal I had last night, you still can’t taste it.”
Since Duchamp, anything can constitute art. In this intellectual climate Beuys painted his face gold and carried a rabbit around a gallery and it was art. Warhol filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours. Damien Hirst cuts up cows and floats them in transparent boxes of formaldehyde and it is art. None of this inquiry, freedom, limitlessness, and permissiveness is bad. But just as anything can be art, not everything can be craft. And the aforementioned crafts of gardening, tapestry, and stained glass still flourish in environments that recognize the distinction and see no pejorative in the description.
How can the crafts of gardening (landscape architecture), tapestry, and stained glass, which require technical training, compete in a sensation-filled art world that values shock and theory over execution and longevity? How else do you explain the selection of Robert Irwin to produce an $8-million garden (at the Getty Center) in an ecosystem that he disregards? (See “Critic at Large,” Page 184.) Theory (and obvious ephemerality) take precedence over craft and knowledge of endeavor.
It is a matter of relevance for writers like Ross and Danto to ponder that which may never have existed at all, while artists/ craftspersons consider them irrelevant to the creative process.
JEFF BLAKELY, ASLA
Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
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