Crafts Criticism

25 Minute Read

By Janet KoplosMore from this author

Crafts Criticism

The following is reprinted from the 1992 monograph published by the Haystack Institute. Haystack Mountain School of Crafts established the Haystack Institute as an annual forum to examine ideas of philosophical importance to the craft field. The first institute entitled "Craft in the 90's: A Return to Materials" was held in 1991 and featured presentations by ceramist Wayne Higby, museum curator Jonathan Fairbanks, and art historian Nancy Corwin. The 1992 institute featured presentations by Janet Koplos and Warren Selig. Another monograph in the same series documents a Haystack session "Craft and Learning" and features ceramist William Daley, textile artist Audrey Walker and arts educator Jo-Anna Moore. The monographs are $4.50 each, or $12 for a set of three and can be ordered from Haystack, P.O. Box 518, Deer Isle, Maine 04627. This year's institute will be held on August 7 and will feature presentations by Gerhardt Knodel and Sarah Bodine and Michael Dunas, which will later be published as a monograph.

Crafts criticism is a mess. It has a shaky past, uncertain credentials, no theoretical basis, and only a vague vision of an ideal. A lot of it is defensive, operating on the assumption that crafts is an underdog field, unfairly denied status as art. Yet almost never does this defensive criticism really consider whether being defined as art is a good thing. In addition, crafts criticism is the focus of endless lamentations - that there are no opportunities to publish criticism, that there is no suitable language of criticism, that there are no capable critics. (My favorite expression of this last idea is Howard Yana Shapiro's comment that in crafts criticism, there are too many 25-watt bulbs in 100-watt sockets. Of course, I think it's funny because I assume he's not talking about me!)

As alarming as the idea may sound, I think we have to consider the likelihood that the problems with criticism relate to the problems of the crafts works themselves. Part of the difficulty with crafts criticism is that crafts has tended to be defined as a community rather than as an aesthetic position - which would be naturally disposed to argumentation and therefore to critical discussion. Craftspeople have tended to be intuitive and not terribly articulate. (Those may be American attributes rather than ones belonging to crafts; on the evidence of the British magazine Crafts, it seems that craftspeople can be eloquent and even theoretical.)

An important motivation for the crafts revival after World War II, and for the second surge in the '60s, was the wish to choose values for living and to create the things with which to surround oneself; a consequent process was to establish a shared sense of identity - that is, a sense of community - with others who made the same choices (this is a philosophical stance, of course, even if nobody puts it that way). A community will be more placid if there's no institutionalized encouragement for people to challenge each other's positions. In crafts, the attitude has been that "we're all in this together." Sociologically, that's wonderful. Critically, it's stifling.

There are opportunities to publish - that lamentation is unfounded. There aren't necessarily opportunities to make a living as a critic. But then, that's almost impossible in art criticism, as well. (I heard a lawyer say recently that art criticism may have the worst pay of any professional field.) In the 1950s Craft Horizons, under the editorship of Rose Slivka, called upon poets and playwrights, such as Richard Howard and Israel Horowitz, to write evocatively about crafts; one might say that they were the first contemporary crafts critics. American Ceramics was invented a decade ago for the specific purpose of providing a place for critical writing about clay. Other crafts magazines have regularly brought up the subject, even if it wasn't the primary concern. Occasionally thoughtful criticism appears in unexpected locations - for example, Barry Targan's column in The Bennington Review or Arthur Danto's writing about furniture in The Nation and elsewhere.

The replacement of Craft Horizons by American Crafts involved, a sharp step back from criticism, because exhibition reviews were dropped. And correctly or not, the magazine is seen today as disinclined to make negative statements, because its professed purpose is to promote crafts, and pointing out a work's flaws would do nothing to encourage collectors. Still, articles in American Craft provide extended consideration of work and occasionally cross the divide into criticism.

In sum, there are opportunities for criticism, even if the climate is not overwhelmingly hospitable to it.

And this matter of language makes me groan. For at least a decade we've been having symposia and such concerned with the language of crafts. Everybody talks about the need, nobody proposes the language. (But that's human nature, you know. I just read in The New Yorker some words of Juvenal, the Roman poet and satirist of the first century A.D., which translate as: "Everyone wants to know, but no one wants to pay the price." So it goes then and now.) Nobody has taken the trouble to survey and analyze the criticism that has been written about crafts to see what sort of vocabulary is being used. There may be some hope for this to happen, because some of the recent Renwick Fellows have researched criticism, but nothing has yet been published that I know of.

So I'm leaping into the void.

To start off, I'm going to assert that, as a product of art schools, and of such criticism as there has been, the whole crafts world has been like Cinderellas wicked stepsisters trying to squash their big feet into the glass slipper - that is, crafts has been trying to be something that it! not. For 40 years craftspeople have been trying to make painting and sculpture - usually not trying as hard as possible, more like just standing with their feet in the same place and leaning toward art. (The advantage of not trying too hard, of course, is that you always have an excuse for failure.)

One consequence of this persistent inclination has been a tendency of craft critics to borrow the nominal vocabulary of art criticism, along with a tendency of everyone to treat the whole crafts field as a unity, which it is not. In the process of grinding up crafts in the art machine, what is useful and valuable and distinctive about crafts is often forgotten or disparaged.

Let me state the obvious: crafts isn't just things that want to be called art and want to be looked at in galleries and museums. (And anyway, that part of our visual world, that segment of the whole aesthetic sea that we're immersed in, is both a tiny and a rather recently formed bay [to continue my aquatic metaphor]. The category is so limited that even some painters and sculptors have misgivings about it. There are many examples of artists throughout the 20th century, and especially in the last two decades, pursuing public and functional roles to escape the galleries and the museums that crafts are struggling to get into.)

But anyway, without getting any deeper into that argument at this point, let me enumerate some of the varieties of crafts. One kind is the work using conventional crafts materials that succeeds in making it into art galleries and art magazines. So far, work in clay has most often been the recipient of art-world acceptance. In addition, crafts encompasses what we can call artisanry - for example, the functional ware that potters make for sale in their  towns or at art fairs. Besides that, there's public commissions - for example the large-scale textile works that hand in hotel atriums. In addition, there's folk art, such as Appalachian jugs or baskets. There are a few craftspeople who make design prototypes for lines of porcelain dinnerware, jewelry, or luxury glass collectibles. There's also hobby crafts, although our crafts field always tries to distance itself from the hobbyists. And finally, and most nebulously, there's the stuff that's called "exhibition work" but that stays within traditional craft forms - for example , teapots that can't be used and are made to show.

Of these groups, only in the first and last case does it make any sense to write "art criticism" about the work. That's because criticism, as it is extracted and extrapolated from the art world, deals with personal expression, with originality, but at rock bottom; with ideas. Art is always about something. Art introduces ideas visually, and the things may be philosophical, political, social, historical, spiritual, psychological. Even in the case of abstract art, there is presumed to be an underlying concept that may deal with formal issues or has some meaning by analogy. The fact that art is always about something means that it has layers, it's not just one thing. Both "art works in craft mediums" and "exhibition works" have this kind of subject matter, and criticism can enrich our understanding of them.

(Criticism, you understand, is not some god-given truth, not some final answer to what the work means. It is simply a proposal, a tentative interpretation, based on a very careful observation by someone who can write. Criticism is an outside view of what a work communicates, based on translating a visual language into a verbal language. Criticism is a service or an educational endeavor - although there have certainly been cases when art criticism has become so self-conscious that it has turned into a self-serving performance and actually become an impediment to understanding the art work.)

Although criticism can be a useful contribution to "art in craft mediums" and "exhibition works," it is destructive in the case of useful objects. Functional things differ from the intellectual and often almost cynical leading-edge art today. I hope nobody thinks that all visual objects should be art and should engage with articulable ideas. Our world and our needs are not that narrow, and squashing everything into one category just makes the category meaningless. Functional things are different from art, but they're not less, they're not dumb, they're not shallow - they're just different. Let me again state the obvious: the prime characteristic of functional work is that it performs a function. Criticism as currently constituted, being based on exhibitions in which the things on display are not supposed to be touched, cannot address function. You can tell very little about the efficiency or experience of use by just looking at an object.

Critical writing about functional work has always been problematic. It might be useful to write about the work in terms of engineered design - using technical language - or it might be rewarding to talk about its physical character and the nature of the experience of using it. But that's not art criticism as we know it today, which deals with ideas. There might be some question of readership for such design information, but then, there's a question of readership for every kind of art writing, and I don't think it would be a terrible stretch for readers of most craft publications to absorb such information. Technical analysis might require some new writers, though.

Functional work still has its visual aspects, of course. It has form or shape, it has color, it has texture, it may have pattern or image. All those things can be discussed in the kind of "art appreciation" approach that I think should always be a part of good criticism, to explain how a work visually communicates. But it would be a very odd distortion to write about those aspects in isolation while disregarding the purpose of the object. Yet that's what happens when art criticism is applied to functional works.

Moreover, those visual aspects that can be discussed do not adequately encompass psychological and sociological aspects of the work that may be very important - may in fact be more important than any specifics of appearance. Perhaps writing about functional work should never be restricted to the work alone; perhaps the whole way that a maker lives and deals with material goods should always be part of the discussion. Perhaps, the object is just the physicalization of a philosophy that shapes a lifestyle.

The pernicious effect of criticism on functional work is not a matter of attacks on specific objects: the problem is that the irrelevance of "use" in art-critical discourse means that "use" is discounted. Functional work is less likely to be reviewed, and when it is reviewed the function is less likely to be discussed. The slow but inexorable result has been that use seems outdated or even mindless. My perception is that during the '80s the number of people making functional work steadily shrank. It's easy to name people, especially working in clay, who were once known for their functional work but are now doing "exhibition work," Mark Pharis, for example. No matter how justifiable the reasons for making this switch, and no matter how much I might admire the exhibition pots he is making, I still regret the loss of functional pots.

(Another reason for this shift, though, is economic rather than critical: functional work has to sell for reasonable prices or people won't be willing to use the objects - this is less true of jewelry - but the price of art can rise almost limitlessly. Thus even if functional craftspeople themselves aren't seduced by the thought of making more money for their work if it's nonfunctional, this factor can act as a damper on galleries. I remember hearing some years ago about Helen Drutt wanting to show Warren MacKenzie's pottery; he told her that she would lose money doing so because his retail prices would not produce enough income to cover her overhead even if the show sold out. I think she went ahead with the show, but the conclusion one has to draw from this situation is that functional work belongs in shops. That would be a neat solution to the problem, and an end to this discussion, if our minds weren't poisoned by the assumption that what's in a shop can't be as important as what's in a gallery.)

Critical writing can also be destructive in the case of folk crafts. Usually the beauty of folk crafts is something distilled over time by what I like to think of as a bedrock human sense-and-sensitivity that comes through when distractions are removed. There has been some philosophical speculation that purely functional things are by their nature beautiful - an interesting idea that the straightforwardness of function is inherently beautiful. Folk crafts are defined - and they appeal to us - because of their distance from trends and from arbitrariness. But writing about folk crafts often has the unintended result of destroying that healthy distance.

The best example of this that I know about happened in Japan, but it could happen anywhere. It's the famous case of Onta pottery, which was "discovered" in the backwoods of the island of Kyushu, so to speak, by Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Japan Folkcrafts Museum. He wrote about it as the perfect realization of community-based cooperative pottery production yielding useful forms that exemplified what he called "healthy beauty." As a result of the attention he brought to Onta pottery, collectors and dealers wanted to acquire it, so prices rose, making it awfully expensive to use. Then some traditional forms were dropped because there was less demand for them among the new buyers. And foreign celebrities such as Bernard Leach visited and introduced foreign forms and practices, such as pitchers or handles. In addition, individual potters were singled out for attention, and that upset the social system of the pottery village. The consequence was that Onta became modern pottery, not folk pottery. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

It's hard to say what would be better for folk crafts. Yanagi extolled Onta forms, so this example shows us that even praise can be damaging. The only way Onta ware could have been perpetuated in the form that Yanagi discovered it would be if he hadn't discovered it. Maybe we should conclude that there should be no writing about folk crafts. But there is a natural human interest in it, and besides, we have to accept that it can't be locked in a time capsule involuntarily (and perhaps not even voluntarily). For an example closer to home, we know that long ago Native Americans adapted their art to the availability of European trade beads and, later, chemical dyes; after the passage of a certain length of time the new materials have been accepted even by the purists who really want work to remain unchanged in a classic state. The world doesn't work that way. Culture goes through cycles just as much as anything else.

If we set aside the argument about change, there's still a separate question of whether criticism is appropriate for folk crafts. In this instance, critics can't talk about personal expression. That aspect of art is seldom present in folk crafts. Ideas can certainly be discussed, but the ideas in folk crafts - whether manifested in form or decoration - are usually cultural standards, so there is seldom the kind of multilevel ambiguity that distinguishes the stuff we call art. Today the symbols used in folk crafts are used because their meaning is shared in the community. They are understood by all members of the community. This suggests that the interesting aspects of folk crafts can be addressed in anthropological terms, without the speculative projection of meaning that is typical of art criticism. And with folk crafts, as with artisanry, there's more to the story than just the object, so criticism is too narrow. So here again, art criticism strikes out.

Both mass-production lines of functional and decorative objects and public-commission works also present difficulties for criticism, but works in these categories aren't as vulnerable to criticism's harmful effects as artisanry or folk crafts are. Both unquestionably have aesthetic aspects. Production lines sometimes don't differ at all in visual character from the singular or limited-edition products of artisans, and if there is a difference it tends to be only a greater refinement and standardization in mass-produced work. The philosophical claims that are made for the preferability of handmade work over factory-made work are actually extra-aesthetic - that is, they're things you know through ways other than seeing. They're no less valid than visual aspects, though. In fact, in these days when politically correct leading-edge art criticism insists on taking into account the cultural context in which art is produced, it would be interesting to try to make an art-criticism case for the moral preferability of handmade work. Such a case would have to be argued, presented as a manifesto, but such a reasoned ideological approach is uncommon in crafts criticism. - So who would do it?

The marketing systems of these two fields make a big difference in their relationship to criticism. Factory-produced work has more to gain from advertising or exposure to buyers through home-decorating magazines. Criticism, being geared to discussion rather than sales, does not have much relevance to the aims of production lines.

Public-commission crafts occupy a very visible yet a very ambiguous position. In hotels and corporate lobbies this work is likely to be treated as decor rather than art and to be unlabeled. The same thing happens to paintings in the same setting, so the problem is not in the crafts works themselves. The difficulty that craft or art faces in this context raises interesting questions about "art in life," and about how much of art's power derives from its placement and treatment rather than from inherent qualities of the work - questions I don't have time to go into here.

Crafts works placed in public settings are usually abstract and usually large. They tend to concentrate on such formal interests as color, structure, or texture, which are presumed to be understandable and appealing to an untutored public; they are intended to be pleasant rather than intellectually or politically challenging.

It's a quirk of of today's art world that likable work is seen as less "worthy" than difficult or unpleasant work. There is no automatic correlation. Still, the public art that gets treated by art critics is the work that's different: difficult, or critical, or austere, or challenging. There's more to say about work that is an exception to the rule. Use of craft materials is not cause for exclusion from critical writing about public works. So that's what criticism focuses on. Use of crafts materials is not cause for exclusion from critical writing about public works. Crafts do better here than in some other situations. Still, the public works are never placed for the purpose of attracting critical attention. Their target audience is average people, rather than critics. The work itself does not seem to accrue prestige from favorable criticism and so become more valuable to its owner. But favorable public attention - such as people liking to have their picture taken in front of the work - has an intangible value for the owner. In the case of public works, criticism is not pernicious, but neither is it particularly significant. More appropriate are simply "reports" on this sort of work, such as newspaper coverage, or analyses that focus more on public response than on artistic intentions.

"Exhibition works" and "art made in crafts materials" are the two categories of work that are made to show, made to talk about, made to be critically analyzed, in accordance with our 20th-century practice of art criticism. The work that has been presented successfully in the forums of art doesn't really need discussion here. I'd include Lenore Tawney, Ken Price, Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, and Betty Woodman among this number. Usually they show in art galleries, not craft galleries, and their work has drawn the attention of well-known art critics - Peter Schjeldahl, for example - and they have been reviewed or even featured in art magazines. Ken Price made the cover of Art in America in 1980. This work is easily discussible in the terms art critics normally use, or else it is somehow so compelling that it forces critics to use its language, to choose a vocabulary keyed to its originality. You will note that the five I mentioned retain particular qualities and meanings that derive from crafts - they don't make something that looks like photographs or collage or whatever by happens to be clay. I think that's significant.

"Exhibition works" is probably the largest and most bothersome category. These works are the ones I mentioned that lean toward art, that adopt its forms or its language or its subject matter but that don't adopt the art emphasis on individuality or originality. They continue to be shown at crafts galleries and in juried crafts exhibitions - self-segregating themselves. They have just enough in common with the other forms of art that it's rather easy for members of the art world to look at them and say, "This looks familiar, and it's second-rate art." To some degree, that criticism is justified: even such important and successful work as the Abstract-Expressionist sculpture of Peter Voulkos follows by several years the art-world work (in this case, mostly painting) that inspired it. Let me baldly state another truth: crafts makers believe that art is more important than crafts, so they look at the shows, read the magazines, and, in following the trends, they come off looking like copyists. Voulkos's "innovation" was only to apply something from painting to his ceramic material. His work has been very influential, and a case can be made that his adaptation is successful. Yet in general, by copying or by responding to someone else's invention, you can never catch up. You stay at the end of the line. (At the same time that I talk about this influence from exposure to art, I must observe, contradictorily, that it's also true that most craftspeople don't really keep up with art, aren't very well informed about new work and new artists. The work that gets through to them is what's well established, which is what I mean by this work not really entering the art world but just leaning toward it, and is also why crafts tends to look dated in an art context.)

Yet to confuse matters further, crafts has such a rich and varied history that often when some new trend shows up in the art world, the crafts world declares, "oh, but we've been doing that all along!" This is a pathetic situation, because while it's true that crafts had the precedent (the latest example is the art world's newly found multiculturalism), to bring up that fact is to use the defense of the powerless. Crafts did it all along, but crafts criticism never made anything of it, never set multiculturalism as an ideological foundation stone of crafts work - until it became important in art. The "me, tool" defense just proves again that the art world is the one that determines the subject of the conversation. If you've read Deborah Tannen you might equate the crafts position with the female role in conversational exchange - typically the woman introduces topics but the male determines whether or not they are taken up.

It's not hard to see the blood kinship between art and crafts. But crafts is definitely different from art. People who have been looking at painting and sculpture and turn to "exhibition crafts" frequently think that the work is too timid and too small. This, again, is a case of art setting the ground rules: most leading-edge art today is large scale, and the occasional work that's not - a good example is Joel Shapiro's tiny early sculptures - tend to be amazingly dense and by that means are as assertive and demanding of attention as larger sculpture.

The truth of this matter is that crafts in general is more concerned with surface qualities than art is, and thus is more involved with subtleties. Crafts more often places a premium on communicating the natural character of the material it's made of, and that usually requires a close look. This intimacy is an identifying character of crafts and it's certainly not a weakness per se, but it does require shifting gears as one moves from painting and sculpture to crafts. People who spend all their time involved with crafts see the subtleties, see the innovations, and can easily get excited by good work, whereas people from the art world may only see a kind of diminishment. Furniture currently seems to be one place where there is some potential to overcome this dichotomy. A bench or a desk is large enough to make a bold statement in a gallery, yet because furniture is used it is perfectly normal for people to get very close to it so they see the subtleties, too. Craft galleries often perpetuate or exacerbate the problem of this change in focal distance, I guess it could be called, because they line the gallery walls with objects placed too close together and set in display cases that distance them and suppress their distinctive qualities. Crafts galleries present work more like shops do than like art galleries do.

Crafts also differs from most art in terms of directness and metaphor. A painter's activity is so divorced from normal life that every action has to be seen as freighted with intention and meaning, whereas a craft object may be just what it is - a body adornment, a utensil, a protective covering - unless the maker consciously works at adding other meanings. These basic purposes are keyed to the human body, so crafts usually is made in a familiar, intimate scale that doesn't demand our full attention as the extremes of scale in painting or sculpture often do. Also, the tangibility, the reality, the material identity of craft objects are almost indomitable, which means that it's hard for a craft object ever to create a pictorial illusion of a different scale. Only rarely, say, in some of Jack Earl's little scenes, do you look at crafts and get pulled into an imaginary space - an effect that's quite common in painting. Usually when crafts makes a convincing illusion, there's a correspondence between the size of the craft object and the size of what's being depicted - for example, in the ceramics of Richard Shaw or Marilyn Levine. All these factors of difference result in crafts that strive to be art; thus they often seem modest and unexciting. But it doesn't have to be that way. Crafts' best route to art is to capitalize on its strength, it's own character, doing the things that other art mediums can't do. I think the beadwork necklaces of Joyce Scott are just that kind of extraordinary achievement. Or I remember some works by Renie Breskin Adams that I saw maybe 10 years ago that showed dizzying scenes that were made all the more vertiginous by the movement of texture in the thread.

But perhaps if craftspeople develop more confidence to do exactly that, to capitalize on their differences, they'll stop worrying about being art and just be themselves. That doesn't mean being a wicked stepsister or even a weak stepsister, it just means being an individual with confidence in your own identity.

In closing, I'd like to say that criticism should be applied only to that segment of the crafts world that pursues ideas, originality ambiguity and the other characteristics of art. Craftspeople should recognize that if they want the "privileges" of art, they're also going to have to accept the "responsibilities," and that means jumping into the art world and lacing tough criticism. Still, criticism should not be seen as an honor but simply as one way of discussing a particular type of work. Crafts critics should not struggle always to sound as if they're talking about art, but should adopt the language of the object they're describing, even if that includes aspects that are not currently popular in the art world. Craft galleries should allow space between objects and at the same time should allow intimate approach. Craft publications should not try to treat all aspects of crafts in the same tone and the same "elevated" regard which has the regrettable effect of distancing these things from our lives. Crafts publications also should consolidate, so that when there is important writing of whatever sort, it can serve an educational function for more than just the little section of the crafts world that reads a medium-specific magazine. And finally, craftspeople should remember what brought them to the field and to the material, and should be true to their own hearts and not be swayed by what others are doing.

Janet Koplos is Associate Editor of Art in America magazine. Her articles have appeared in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, as well as in Horizon, American Craft and American Ceramics.
By Janet Koplos
Metalsmith Magazine – 1993 Summer
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Janet Koplos

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