The arts and crafts debate
Becker in his essay The Arts and Crafts has attempted to resolve and discuss, in some respects, the contradictions that developed during the post war era. He tries to define or perhaps realign the contexts in which these ideas are used by analyzing the relationship between arts and crafts through the evolution or perhaps devolution of craft to art and vice-versa; relying particularly on the example of ceramics in the 1960s and 70s.
In the chapter Arts and Crafts he discusses the relationship between the arts and crafts and the boundaries that divide them or lack thereof: based on his experience in the United States. His biggest downfall to his argument is his lack of examples and references from other sources and mediums.
Becker’s approach is fairly objective, giving a viable explanation to the topics approached. He writes that there is no clear and decisive interpretation of definition between arts and crafts and that depending on the contexts it is put into there can be a certain amount of transgression between the two worlds. Becker defines craft as the following, In the pure folk definition the craft consists of a body of knowledge and skill which can be used to produce useful objects. Or from the slightly different point of view, it consists of the ability to perform in a useful way. He goes on to outline the tangible aspects of usefulness, depending upon the context they are used in, being the external or internal factors of the world referred to.
In addition to function, skill is determined to be a measure of the craft or craftsmanship. Becker continues to say that in certain circumstances beauty can also be part of the criteria, which weighs the balance of debate. Furthermore, although these criteria have been recognised and accepted by artists / craftsmen there are certain inconsistencies in the definitions, because different values have been placed on these criteria by groups. Therefore there becomes a distinction between the artist-craftsman and the ordinary craftsman, thus there is a co-existence between the art segment, utilitarian craft segment, and artist craftsmen segment.
This may be true in some respects but perhaps it could also be an individuals personal distinction between the fields. Whether they identify themselves more closely with traditional craftsmen or with the artist, or perhaps somewhere positioned in the void of ambiguity between the two segments. As with the many traditions that have become localised under the more modern label artist-craftsmen; however the individuals views differ there is a common thread of internal conflict, between the groups of arts and crafts, about the meaning of what they do. These differences of opinion may, at the base of the problem, be a sociological distinction rather than an aesthetic or technical one. A point that Becker perhaps overlooks too easily.
Becker’s idea of skill is one that, while not wrong, is perhaps not truly reflective of the people he is discussing. He believes it to be a mastering of ability, in both the physical and mental disciplines; which allows extra ordinary control over the craft materials and techniques. The general consensus from individuals involved in these areas seems to be somewhat contradictory of Becker’s stance. The makers with the most direct line to the arts and crafts movement tend to think of craft skills as challenge, both social and aesthetic, to automated industry. In each area there are different values placed on aspects of an individuals work and therefore there are different attitudes and ideas in respect to the definition of skill. Underlying this, most believe that the essential element is in the mind of the worker, rather than simply the manual skill involved. And equally important a strong sense of ability to exercise control over every aspect of work they do. Becker believes that the craftsman has less control over what he is making as he is more likely to have to conform to more conventional guidelines dictated by the public for utility. But so too is the artist constrained by the galleries, museums and collectors associated with their industry, although generally on a far more benign level.
A good reflection of this idea is the work of Tasmanian furniture designer Kevin Perkins whose technical skills and ideas have won him great acclaim. He states Things that youre doing have got to get personal…if its just making, it doesnt hit the spot for me. Ive got to have a reason to do the work that gives me some excitement… Otherwise its just a bit of cabinet…might as well get anyone to do it.
While defining the terms of craft and skill Becker makes an evaluation of the changing boundaries between the worlds of art and craft. He labels them under two distinct titles; Craft becomes Art and Art becomes Craft. Initially a transformation from art to craft or vice-versa occurs by the invasion of the artist into the craft world for the use of mediums or processes, which become juxtaposed within their own world, ignoring utility. As Becker wrote, Artists invading a craft want to make sure that the works they produce cannot be used as people have become accustomed to using them. As a result of utility becoming inconsequential so does the skill involved in the process, thus craft becomes art. Such practices can also become advantageous to the artisan gaining non-conventional skills within the field.
Becker uses the work or Robert Arneson Sinking Brick Plates and A Tremendous Teapot to illustrate this point. He classifies Arneson as an artist because of the indifferent works he produces, i.e. they lack utility, but Arneson himself ridicules the idea of art and conventional artists . His work involves all the skills of a master of ceramics. Becker’s idea has perhaps overlooked the utility of aesthetics and expression that Arneson is obviously creating.
Through Becker’s exploration of artists delving into the sphere of craft, he describes the deconstruction of the art worlds, which have been created so that art returns to craft. An area of art which maintains the aesthetics, structure and according ideologies of an art world is able, by demanding adherence to its own rules, to channel itself into redefinition as craft world. The areas previous artistic freedoms may become ritual as defined by the whole, which renders it craft. Becker has classified the resulting transformations into craft as either commercial or academic art. The academic art he refers to becomes more concerned with the skill of craft involved, manifesting itself into the apparent ideals of craft as a world. He writes: artists who master such technical skills usually begin to think, talk and act like craftsmen. they put their skills to uses which are not regarded as artistic due to the constraints of the business or industry for which they are creating. Therefore the academic art evolves in some respects into commercial art. A good example of this transformation is the work of Ken Done whose work when originally exhibited was seen as great contemporary Australian art. But now due to its mass production and simplicity of design in his work, he is considered, among art circles, as more of a craftsman because of his adherence to a commercial product. This reflects the demands of a modern society where the boundaries between the fields are ambiguous and can overlap. As a result the distinction of roles for the artist / craftsman / designer is very hazy around the edges.
For someone to be an artist it is almost impossible to deny that there is some necessity to be skilled to a certain degree, to be able to create a product or work. There of course some acceptions to this like the works of Jeff Koons who contracts the labor of highly skilled craftsmen to construct his giant sculptures. He is fairly adamant about his accomplishments as an artist, although he has his critics. Well-known critic Robert Hughes doubts very much the ability of Kooks to call himself an artist for the very reason of his lack of skill as much as the content of his work. He states in his television series American visions that Koons work is, at best, art, which cannot be taken seriously.
This also touches on the idea that although a craftsman may make things of utility if they are not used for the purpose they were created for are they now then unable to be classified as useful in Becker’s definition. A good example of this is perhaps a well crafted wooden bowl turned by a wood turner, a skilled tradesman, that is hung on someones wall. A piece of craft is elevated to art in the mind of the individual who hung it. Similar examples can be seen in many galleries where traditional craft items are often displayed to be revered by the public.
This idea also works in the reverse where artists may create objects, which in their design may have great utility. This can be seen in many works by contemporary ceramists or furniture designers. A good example is the work of artist Jeannette Rein who often creates works that are functional. SEE ATTACHMENT
Becker’s examples illustrate well the transgressions between the worlds of art and craft they are still very relevant to the contemporary ideas today. What his explanation lacks in essence is the individuals personal distinction in the way they view their own work.
As the art and craft industries evolve and change so does the need for us to be more accommodating to the fact that proper assessment of the relationship between arts and crafts and its contemporary value and significance will forever remain obscured.