The Future of American Crafts

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By Patricia MalarcherMore from this author

American crafts are under-going self-examination. Expressed in countless ways, varying from anxiety to optimism, the observation that the field is changing is heard frequently now. Although no ready answers are available, artists, gallery owners, museum directors, collectors and others close to the field are asking where it is going.

Pleas for critical discussion and documentation indicate a need for recognition and appraisal. At the same time, crafts have branched out in so many directions that no common thrust is evident. While many artists working in craft media are seeking, and some finding, acceptance by the fine arts community, others are looking toward designing for industrial production. For some, craft fairs continue to provide viable, ongoing outlets, but only at the risk that producing for the market can lock them into repetition of past successful work.

As teaching lobs on all levels have diminished, craftsmen no longer can expect the educational system to support their creativity. Yet, they are finding their way into new areas—writing, curating, consulting—that have helped bring crafts to the attention of a broader public.

Despite the self-scrutiny within the field, museum exhibitions of crafts continue to attract record-breaking crowds. Still, there are complaints that crafts have become so slick that the maker's hand is no longer visible.

Distinctions between "functional" and "nonfunctional" crafts have existed ever since the early stages of the movement after World War ll. However, according to those who remember, initially crafts were unified by an assertion of intangible values, such as integrity and "truth to materials," that set them apart from the art establishment, the business world and middle class aspirations. According to that view, now the crafts community is reaching toward the very things that, originally, it opposed.

The Future of American Crafts

The time is ripe for reappraisal. Thus, it seemed appropriate that last summer two attempts were made to address the situation. One, a three-day forum entitled "Re-Visioning the Crafts" took place at the Penland School of Crafts. The other, a "Colloquium for the Future," was integrated into a special, academically oriented session at the Haystack School. Although the two events differed structurally, conceptually they converged on the concern for values. A shared perspective was that the crafts movement, particularly in its recent emphasis on marketing, no longer reflects the humanistic principles that were assumed at the beginning.

Harold Evans, the director of Haystack, in an interview after the colloquium, described the present situation as "a values crossroad."

More explicitly, Verne Stafford, the director of Penland, opened the forum with questions: Are craftsmen sacrificing creativity for success? Have "careers" become more important than "work"? Has one all-pervasive style been imposed by a marketplace unconcerned with content? Are new ideas being stifled by the "establishment" of galleries, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Craft Council and schools?

I was among 60 people—artists, educators, arts administrators, gallery representatives and miscellaneous searchers—who had converged at Penland from all over the country. Many, including myself, were attracted by curiosity. There also were hopes that, through our collective presence, some issues might be clarified.

Admittedly, my personal perspective had been colored by my experience last year of reentering America after a month in Indonesia. That immersion in an exotic craft tradition, expressed in great diversity from one region to another, had sent me home with a fresh perception of crafts.

Stopping off in Honolulu, I headed for a craft gallery which, due to its reputation, I had long regarded with esteem. I was disappointed, partly because it had moved to a shopping mall, where it could barely be distinguished from the neighboring shops, but mostly because the featured works were East Coast decorated plates I had already seen in New Jersey. I had hoped to find something unique to Hawaii, but the only regional items were the sort of pedestrian work that remains forever local.

At my next stop in San Francisco, the same line of decorated plates reappeared, not only in a leading gallery but also in a blue-chip department store. Unfortunately, what had initially been eye-catching seemed to become less interesting with each encounter. It seemed that the creative energy invested in marketing this work was greater than that in its making.

That impression was amplified by the contrast of my experience in a gallery of ethnic folk art—also in San Francisco. There, in one piece after another, was imagination, ingenuity, risk and—most critically—spirit. It didn't seem to matter whether they were old or new, one-of-a-kind or production items, made for export or for an indigenous community. They communicated an energy and surprise that was lacking in the craft presentations.

Although the months that followed yielded many encounters with American crafts worth acknowledging in print, I was left with unresolved questions. I could not forget the impression that, despite the sophisticated skills they represent, American crafts on a marketing level had become as predictable as toothpaste.

In retrospect, I see the past year as a time of personal reevaluation of the movement. The Penland event was one episode in that search. Led by Verne Stafford and Paulus Berensohn, the forum was designed around general assemblies presided over by eight panelists. Among them, several had the status of "ancestor figures": Eudorah Moore, former crafts coordinator of the National Endowment for the Arts; M.C. Richards, the author of Centering; Gerry Williams, a potter and the editor of Studio Potter Robert James, a potter and long-time professor of art at the University of Oregon.

Unfortunately, while the participants found stimulation in each other's company, as well as during informal sessions with the panelists, the forum failed to get off the ground. The sessions were punctuated by repeated references to the term "humanism," which at times was used interchangeably with "function." However, once the sessions got underway, the market-oriented issues Stafford promised to raise in an "ambiguous attack on the establishment" were never addressed. Instead, the focus lurched from one subject to another.

Reinforcing a memory of crafts as an outgrowth of a postwar search for human values was the fact that the forum coincided with the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima. Shaping the group's response to that commemoration was Louise Todd Cope's vivid, eye-witness account of the national "ribbon project." (An anti-nuclear protest, the project had involved the encirclement of the Pentagon with thousands of banners made by amateur groups as well as professional artists.) Cope's account was authentically moving; in the banners the democratization of art for the expression of protest affirmed its potential for humanistic causes. Yet, the project's very sincerity reinforced the forum's troubling drift toward a devaluation of excellence for the sake of humanistic ideals.

Throughout the forum, there were allusions to crafts that projected the aura of a secular religion with the functional potter as priest and the pot as an icon. A rousing ovation in response to Gerry Williams's reading of his own editorial on function had a definite revivalist fervor.

In general, the forum sacrificed the possibility of examining the present by eliciting ghosts of the past. Finally, at the last session those were put aside when the panelists were asked to project their own immediate futures. A sampling of their responses: M.C. Richards has been approached by members of the business community to develop art-related programs to serve the personal development of corporation members; Ralph Burgard, a consultant who explores, on a national scale, new uses of cultural resources, will continue to help "make communities a celebration of citizens rather than a test of endurance"; Eudorah Moore spoke optimistically of the expanding connections between crafts and the worlds of industry and architecture. While most of the answers had humanistic overtones, it seemed significant that the visions that emerged encompassed a much broader scope than the functional pot. If there was any message, it seemed to be that humanistic principles were not dependent on the crafts for their survival.

At the Haystack colloquium, which had been conceived by Bob Ebendorf as "a creative gamble to help up-and-coming leadership," the format consisted of a series of seminars during a session attended by graduate students and others with professional commitments to the field.

According to Evans, "we wanted to begin to empower new leadership from a viewpoint that recognizes spiritual, right-brained values and sees the difference between economics and ecology. The message in American crafts now is that the best artists are successful marketers of style. We want to see artists reach beyond commercialism." (As a point of reference, he spoke of The Gift, a book by Lewis Hyde, which, in attempting to interpret art value as a quality above and beyond material worth, refers to the practice of gift exchange in tribal societies.)

While each seminar dealt with a specific topic—"The Spirit of the Process," for Instance—the participants interviewed agreed that a paper presented by Wayne Higby on "Craft as Attitude" provoked a discussion that was particularly stimulating. (That paper has since been published as a pamphlet with a Haystack imprint.)

Tracing the craft movement from the aftermath of World War II, when "craft was seen as a vocational choice that would integrate its practitioners with the natural patterns of universal good" to the 1980s, "the era of whatever works," Higby noted that a deterioration in quality during the 1960s was reversed in the 1970s. Then, he wrote, as crafts split up in different directions—the "elitist idea of one-of-a-kind objects," the "highly intellectualized principles of serious functional aesthetics" and the idea of "high art and high prices"—their common ground was that "each succumbed to being a marketing strategy."

Questioning whether craft, to be art, must adhere to the accoutrements of the New York art establishment, Higby proposed a solution of viewing craft, in a nonexclusive context, as attitude: "a mental position toward making which seeks to fuse good intentions with an effort to achieve artistic perfection."

Further on, in quoting art critic Suzi Gablik's conviction that [fine] artists, in crisis due to the demands of the art establishment, must reevaluate their motives, he implies the ironic possibility that craftsmen "crossing over" into the art world might meet some familiar moral questions.

Did the colloquium satisfy the intended goals? Opinions varied. Evans, who witnessed it from start to finish, thought it worked. John Prip said that, although the group was slightly different from average, the session did not seem dramatically different from any other Haystack session. Ebendorf, who was there for three days in the middle, had reservations.

"As much as we tried to talk about lofty ideas, it boiled down to money. I wanted to talk about what people read and what kind of art history they cared about. But, 15 minutes into a discussion, they wanted to know about promotion and public relations." Further, Ebendorf noted, while his initial hope had been "to reach into a whole pool of creative people," the session failed to lure "hardcore production" people from their studios.

Higby's paper offers a mental escape from rigid categories in a pluralistic art scene His analysis of history is seductive, if oversimplified. However, I found myself resisting his reduction of crafts in the 70s to "marketing strategies." It probably is true. as he suggests. that craftspeople turned toward marketing then as a reaction to the lassitude after the 60s. However, I would rather see it more positively as a healthy contact with reality after a period of starry-eyed idealism. And was it not also related to the shrinking of the academic job market?

Despite my own conviction that marketing demands can be a counter force to creativity, I was troubled by the fact that so much opposition to it came from people with security in academic roles. Perhaps, as suggested at Penland, for some artists the answer to artistic integrity lies in the example of Charles Ives, the musician, who held an ordinary job during the day and did his composing at night. Others might resonate with Higby's suggestion, offered during a telephone interview that if the same level of concern applied to art were brought to other occupations, there might be fewer artists struggling to survive in the marketplace.

However, a solution based on diminishing the amount of work being made and shown does not seem satisfactory, Nor does the attempt to look nostalgically toward the recent history of crafts for anyone under 40, the postwar climate and the humanistic incentives generated by it are historical abstractions.

Attending the forum and hearing about the colloquium led me to the conclusion that the problem of keeping creativity alive in artists oriented toward selling is not going to be solved in schools, where the marketplace is viewed as a compromise. I decided to adopt the attitude that the present marketing scene is a "given" that must be dealt with on its own terms. Reflecting on events I have attended during the year, I readily admit that much of what appeared at fairs, galleries and craft shops was dull, trite, contrived, derivative, poorly designed and overpriced. Yet, within the marketing system itself, there were significant glimmers of hope.

Among them were projects conceived to offer artists the means and incentive to experiment. One such effort, which has been well publicized, was the collaboration whereby the Formica Corporation, in partnership with the Gallery at Workbench in New York, challenged a group of furniture-makers to work with the product called Colorcore. The innovative results are now in a traveling exhibition. In a similar vein, for an exhibition called "Silkworks," the Gayle Willson Gallery in Southampton, New York, in collaboration with American Silk Mills, invited a number of fiber artists to explore the possibilities of silk. On an individual scale, the Lee Sclar Gallery in Morristown, New Jersey helped Carroll Bassett, a blacksmith, find a local factory where he could shape blocks of steel with an industrial steam hammer. The immediate results, shown at the gallery, were unusual, but not altogether successful, vessel forms. However, as a direct result of his experiments, Bassett recently has developed a strong new approach to sculpture.

Shifting to the area of craft fairs, it is obvious from recent articles and letters in American Craft magazine that protests are being raised about the ever-expanding size and tradeshow atmosphere of large-scale events, particularly the Springfield shows sponsored by American Craft Enterprises and its competition. However, the Philadelphia Craft Show has managed to retain its small scale and reputation for excellence. This year, the quality there was consistently high, and yet many artists made a point of offering some things that were priced for out-of-wallet impulse buying. Also, the presence of several exhibitors from Pennsylvania who do not show in any other fairs gave this a regional flavor. (I wondered how much the makeup of the jury contributed to the show's quality. Unlike many large fairs, which are juried by previous exhibitors, the Philadelphia show was juried by people who do not exhibit in fairs. Is that distance from the situation a positive factor in the jurying process?)

In regard to the connection with industry, it was sobering to see the current traveling retrospective exhibition of textiles by Anni Albers, organized by the Renwick Gallery. It offered a reminder that the Bauhaus goal of craftsmen designing for industry, which predated the universities' claim on crafts, is an honorable pursuit, as well as a part of our tradition.

The above unrelated instances hardly make a case. The point, perhaps, is to suggest that there is no shortage of creativity, when it is challenged, Perhaps what is needed is not fewer artists in the marketplace but more people there who are willing to help artists grow.

To conclude with a comment on the subject of values, I return to a school situation. The occasion was a critique last fall following an intensive anagama course at the Peters Valley Craft Center in New Jersey. The participants were a mixed group, differing in age and professional experience. Under John Chalke's leadership, the anagama had been fired in a straightforward, unromantic manner without the mystique of the Japanese philosophy, which had accompanied that kiln's previous firings. As a spectator, I felt caught in a time warp: the discussion could have been taking place in any clay studio at any time between the 1950s and the present. As the group dispersed, one or two, with embarrassed caution, voluntarily remarked that the project had been a "spiritual experience." It struck me that the philosophical value of craft is a by-product that may be implicit in the process but must be continually rediscovered through experience.

Patricia Malarcher is a fiber artist and freelance writer, who contributes a regular column on crafts to the New Jersey section of the Sunday New York Times.

By Patricia Malarcher
Metalsmith Magazine – 1986 Spring
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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Patricia Malarcher

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