Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Craft exhibits and the definition of Craft

I stopped into the Renwick Gallery today to see their exhibit of young artists: "40 Under 40: Craft Futures", and to ponder what exactly crafts are, different from art that might be shown in another type of art museum.  I was surprised by the way contemporary craft seemed to be defined by the works in the Renwick's exhibition -not good or bad surprised, just surprised.

Before visiting the exhibit, I might have defined crafts as handmade objects that strike a balance between function and beauty, made by people who feel a deep affinity to a long tradition of cultural practices of creation, even as their works range from the conservative to the wildly updated and unique.  An example from the Renwick's permanent collection illustrates this:

This is a Teapot, made 1989 by Ralph Bacerra.  It is tied into folk traditions of ceramic and tea drinking, while having its own kooky, tilted personality.  It is beautiful and original, without completely loosing its connection to functionality.  (Of course, being inside a glass case at a museum, it never fulfills its function as a teapot -but in theory, you could take it out of the glass case and serve tea in it if you wanted to.)  Other works in the permanent collection which seemed to fit with my definition of crafts included quilts, jewelry, furniture, vases and utensils.  

The works displayed in "40 Under 40" had a different relationship to all aspects of my definition.  Many were not handmade, but took advantage of computer and other technologies.  Many so altered traditional forms that although they might remind viewers of objects with a function, they could no longer function themselves as anything but displayable art.  An example is this quilt made entirely out of 16mm film tape, not a material you could cuddle up under on a cold night (work shown below, Hula Hoop by Sabrina Gschwandtner, 2010, 34" x 34").

Connections to a traditional cultural practice haven't disappeared in these new works -they are very evident, for example in the quilt above, but the most important connection seems to be with movements of the post-modern art scene, more than to folk traditions.  There wasn't a great deal of difference between what was on display at "40 Under 40", from what might be found at many a museum of contemporary art.

I liked the definition the exhibit gave for contemporary craft, that craft is no longer as much about being "handmade" but about the attitude of the maker to "improve quality of life through a closer relationship with making." This meant that the exhibit paid a lot of attention to the process, through videos of the artists at work.   I was also fully convinced by the beauty of many of the objects, and the complicated issues they raised about contemporary society.  The exhibit was engaging.  However, I wonder if something isn't lost by this trend for craft to distance itself from connections to functionality and traditional practice, and become more like other forms of contemporary art. Are functional objects less worthy of placement in a museum? If they are being crowded out even in a craft museum, a place where they should reign supreme, where will they every be shown?

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