It was 25 years ago that I ran into my first anti-craftsperson, and I’ve been terminally puzzled ever since. I was the new kid on the block as director of the Institute of American Studies at the East West Center in Honolulu, and I was shaking hands in all the adjacent departments. The chairman of Art wanted me to be sure to meet the new ceramicist in the department, a prestigious find they had just lured over from the Mainland.
Well, my God, this friendly guy, who obviously was capable of great feats of clay, showed me around his current cache of pots. Gorgeous, except they had all been smashed, twisted, tweaked off—so as to destroy their obvious original function. Pottiness. Anti-pots. Why, I mused, a born lover of beautified clay, why oh why muck them up? “I’m not interested in functional crafts,” he replied, “I want my stuff to be art.” Holy Toledo. Ugly up the beautiful and you get art? It struck me as demented, even perverse, then; and it continues to strike me as dumb today. In a world where quotidian ugliness escalates around us, such an esthetic is not only dumb but dangerous. I know this is heterodox, but so be it.
We are confusing ourselves with what I dub the Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome. Craft doesn’t give enough respect, so strive to become an “artist.” Phooey. I was talking to the legendary furniture maker George Nakashima the other day about these silly status panics and he said that when he decided to go full time into furniture back in 1941, the Chicago Tribune editorialized condescendingly that he was “demeaning” himself to go from the nobler art of architecture (he practiced in Japan and India after graduating from the University of Washington in architecture) to the “mere” craft of woodworking. Imagine. The luminous shaping of woods he has practiced to the delight of the world for almost fifty years “demeaning”!
These dark thoughts moiled through my head as I killed time last month at the San Francisco International Airport waiting for Eastern’s “Moonlight Special” to fly me cheaply to Newark so I could attend the opening of the dazzling new American Craft Museum which is now snuggled ever so grandly into the first four floors of a CBS / Gerald Hines Interests high rise on the spot where the old crafts center used to be.
The Airport Commission in San Francisco had an idea almost as bright as the ACM’s condofying itself with a nice $750,000 nest egg from the developers—namely, use those dead spaces that take the airplane traveler from the ticket counter to the departure lounge as a museum. Showing while I killed time creatively was a monumental and truly illuminating essay on the chair as art and artifact. You never had so damn much fun waiting for an airplane in your life. Making a memorable chair, after all, is the great rite of passage for the American designer / craftsman / architect. All the biggies were there: the sweetly bentwood of the Thonet Brothers began the parade joined by Saarinen, Eames, Bertoia, Esherick, the whole beguiling canon of Great Chairs. Except that the proof of judging is in the sitting. And a great many “classic” modern chairs are patently unsittable. It gives me a lower back pain just to look at the Dutch Constructivist Rietveld’s “sitters” (my etymological conscience won’t permit me to use the term “chair” in his case).
And there’s that Wrighteous man called Frank Lloyd. If ever an architect designed unsittables, it was he. And he knew it! Captioning two of his unseatable sculptures for getting an instant pain in the ass: “My early approach to the chair was something between contempt and desperation.” Wrong, Wright! You were succumbing to the hubris of the twentieth century crafties hungering to be ARTISTS; you were subordinating somebody’s posterior to your analytics.
I’m not going to mention where this subversive shame over the allegedly lower prestige of crafts led: Phillip Garner’s “Tee Vee Chair” (1986) in which the picture tube has been scrapped to allow for a mini-settee of a sort inside the old front room furniture of an abandoned first generation television set. He, ho, ho. Make mine, SONY, baby, and leave this ironic trash to the dust bins of heavy handed over-expensive humor. Objects re-trouves.
Nor will I rue Frank Gehry’s quirky decision to abandon his successful line of corrugated cardboard furniture. (It cost $7.50 to make his basic armless which sold for $37, according to the splendid exhibition of his work now at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.) I mean, Frank, us peasants could actually afford to buy your stuff. Why did you abandon us for the megashills like Robert Venturi whose pseudo-Chippendales cost thousands of bucks for those foolish enough to buy them. (I’m happy to report that the Denver Art Museum’s sedentary plebiscite a year ago gave the Thonets more votes than our New Techies: their minishow in the foyer arranged a selection of the most famous—and a few infamous—modern chairs and asked visitors to vote with their rear ends. That’s my kind of participatory assthetics.)
These were the nightmarish dreams I had during the Moonlight Special. (Eastern dumps you as unceremoniously as possible in Houston at 2:30 a.m. CST and turns you loose to find the pier for Newark plane leaving at 4:00 a.m.) Thank God the Airbus 300 seats were not designed by some upwardly mobile assthete.
I was a wreck when I got to New York City, but the elegant peekaboo façade of Bruce Fowle of Fox and Fowle Artchitects restored my spirit. (The name sounds like something Monty Python might think up for an anti-vivisectionist skit, but his achievement there is world class, name or no.) The maniac Manhattan walkerby is very hard to tempt off any sidewalk but Fowle has taken great panes to see that they do drop in.
Paul Smith’s theme for the inaugural is “Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical,” a title very endearing to a type like me that taught metaphysical poetry for thirty years. It’s simply splendid the ways the floors flow—your eye drags you on, beguiled by what its retina is picking up in the next room or level. Simply scrumptious. You could drool about there just on the architectural nutritiousness of it all. But of course it is also filled with wonders.
Philadelphia-born Albert Paley is one of the art-making wonders of this skuzzy continent. I first went Paley at the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, where the magical mystery turns of his forged steel joins the old Beaux Arts manse of the older Hunter with its new internationally stylish addition. What a jointure. Perhaps the best in the country—something old linked to something new by the bluesiness of his borrowings. He turns cold steel into warmly spiritual swirls. Oh, how I love his craftinesses.
And, sure enough, as I prowled, looking for yet another Paley fix, he’s there—a lectern, whose sinuous underpinnings support horizontal brass and copper bands to hold the reading material. I swear you could not give a boring lecture from such a lectern. (And there’s an equally luminous Paley in Darrel Sewall’s lovely swatch of acquisitions that garnished the 10th running of the Philadelphia Craft Show, in this instance a plant stand, whose glory only the most elegant of flora could stand the competition of. But that is getting ahead of my craft spiel.)
Smith divides the show into four sections: The Object as Statement (here’s where those who despise their earthy crafts strive most idiosyncratically to soar off into the empyrean sky of ART); The Object for Personal Adornament (in the old days we called these things clothes and jewelry, but what the hell!); The Object as Vessel (sometimes they hold things, and sometimes they don’t—even want to, cf. category one above); and, ahem, last and most definitely least in the hearts of the Arties, The Object Made for Use (which we used to call, remember? CRAFTS).
The publicity photos in this last category picture a table desk (Garry Knox Bennett, 1985), a steak knive set (Philip Baldwin II, 1985-86), and “Fireplace Site I” (1985) by Philadelphia’s Paula Winokur. And while I relish the skill with which she etherealizes ceramic materials, if I were a log, I would rather watch than visit her and—(if or but) irons. It’s pushing it to say her “site” is for burning. It’s for looking and loving. And that’s crafty enough. I love to look at lovely things. Isn’t that a function? Satisfying my thirst for beauty?
That’s the false dysjunction that corrupts so much of our palaver about art vs. craft. I’m reminded of one of Marshall McLuhan’s favorite aphoristic allusions. When you ask the Balinese what their “best” art form is, they answer “We don’t have any art forms; we just do everything we do as well as we can.” Precisely.
Now I pride myself on being a no-nonsense type of person, and I find perhaps half of the sacred totems in the New York show pretentious piffle. But I also believe in Herb Gans’ pluralist esthetics (live and let others love in their own diverse ways.) And I would defend to the Voltairean death their right to be quirky in their own ways, whilst all the while reserving the right to insist that we need well-made objects for everyman’s use (the original ideal of the Weimar Bauhaus before they sold out to Fortune 500’s after their own painful diaspora).
And you never know when a “useless” object will touch you powerfully. After scrutinizing the cutlery carefully (it’s difficult and dumb to make knives that don’t cut; but it is also exhilarating to see knives that dazzle the mind’s eye while nestling powerfully in your cutting hand), I wandered around ready to be dazzled. Oh what a dazzle there! Leonore Tawney’s “Indivisible Point,” a delightfully vertical cascade of red threads more dense (but asymmetrically so) in the center, where a gentle knottiness describes a low horizontal arc slightly below the center. Useful? Ah, are butterflies useful? Is an Elm Tree crafty? Are the islands off Matsushima artfully deployed?
Next functionless question. Ms. Tawney’s marvel is deployed in the catalog ($29.95 paper). Museum Hours at 40 W. 53rd (The F Train / Museum of Modern Art / Fifth Avenue stop is your best shot from Penn Station / Amtrak) are Tuesdays, 10-8, Wednesday through Sunday, 10-5, closed Mondays and National Holidays. On the wall near the Object Made for Use is the comment that this section represents “the growing interest in making unique items for specific functions.” Aha! Rediscovering the wheel of craftiness. Coming full circle so to speak.
And speaking of circle, there were connections between the New York inaugural and the Philadelphia annual. Take Donna Look who won the $250 check that goes with being praised by her peers, the Craftsman’s Award. Up in the wilds of Algoma, Wisconsin, where the breathing is easy and the birches are plentiful, she and a high school chum from the equally famous Wisconsin hamlet of Mequon (Class of 1966) have been splitting a studio in the woods. (Her partner is a goldsmith.) Donna makes baskets (functioning ones) of birch bark. They are astonishingly lovely. She’s self-taught. Been at it five years, and while she experiments with other natural fibers and materials she is not about to abandon her successful birch roll.
She does three shows a year and drove her treasures down from the woods in her 75 Ford Econoline van. And happy as a clam. She should be. Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanaki reports that the lucky displayers who pass the jury’s screening can make as much as $25,000 in sales over the weekend. The 24,000 admission-paying browsers have pushed the Women’s Committee net for Philadelphia Museum of Art to over a million dollars during the past ten years. And the mini-expo of acquisitions at the Armory showed it. Lovely.
So why can’t I just enjoy and stop carping? Because crafts at the Armory were obviously the preserve of the Mainline and Yuppiedom. That’s great as far as it goes, but for a Walt Whitman / Louis Sullivan visionary like myself that’s not nearly enough. Come with me to Stockholm so I can show you a larger, sounder vision. There in the basement atelier of Sigurd Persson last year I found this renaissance Swede working on the mechanical drawings for a mass produceable dust sweeper. Bright red plastic (he mailed me one several months after it had gone into production), it’s so ingenious I love to use it: it may indeed make an honest housekeeper of me it’s such a marvel of design.
Now I didn’t go to his studio to see a sweeper. I went there because at the 900 anniversary celebration of Helsingborg (the ferry port for Denmark, where Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle graces their harbor) there was a luminous expo of his glass, silver, clay, as well as mass-produced designs. His maiden sisters run a gallery of his glories in the center of town, and they blessed me with books which are in effect mini-retrospectives of his achievements in these diverse media.
In his studio he wanted most to talk about his abstract sculptures. They’re fine too. But my point is that the Scandinavians have never succumbed to the schizoid splits our crafts traditions have becomes heirs to. His royalties from mass production subsidize his expensive crafts and his virtually unsellable sculptures. When I went later to the new Swedish Design Centre in downtown Stockholm, they had the same message: they seek a sensible symbiosis between the highest quality arts and crafts and their mass production industries. We have abandoned the masses to the kitsch floggers. Not in Scandinavia. They feel a sense of responsibility to the total built environment.
To them, no person is a consumer of himself entire, but a part of the Mainstream. Do not ask for whom the Scandinavian designer toils (his American counterpart toils mainly for the rich), he toils for thee. And their countries are better for it, visually and sociologically. How did Motel T America, the bastion of quality for all, become the fiefdom of special servants for the well-to-do? Answer that troubling question, and you’ll know why America is mostly a visual disaster with tiny oases for the privileged.
Reprinted from Art Matters, Vol. 6, No. 4, Dec/Jan 1986/1987