But where can I buy all the pretty???

Visit Vagabond Romantics shop now to browse and buy altered art, wearable collage, and lovingly curated craft materials unearthed from the farthest reaches of granny's attic.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Art vs Craft

Fam, Mixed Media Art
Doll Assemblage, 2015
Yesterday I mentioned making the transition from craft to fine art and promised to write more about it, and I know you've all been waiting on the edge of your seats! I thought it was also appropriate to include an image of "Fam" ("Mother"), the other assemblage piece I submitted for exhibition and which was rejected despite being, to my mind, the stronger piece of work. I'm not saying that has anything to do with the ideas I'm about to discuss, you can draw your own conclusions.

I recall a meeting I attended several years ago with a group of woman makers who wanted to form an arts collective. We stumbled at the starting blocks because no one could agree on how to define ourselves. The three options were crafters, artists, or makers. This provoked a surprisingly heated discussion which I've never forgotten. Personally I was fine with any terminology, though I preferred "makers" as it takes in any creative practice and does not have the perceived exclusion that the term "artist" carries for some, nor the uncomfortable associations with grannies selling acrylic knitted baby clothes in church halls that "crafter" is still often associated with. But one participant had trained at art college and was hostile to the idea of being relegated to a "mere crafter", and others didn't want the more highbrow "art" label attached to their lighthearted creations. It was something of a defining moment for me.

What is art, and what differentiates it from craft? Arguably less and less these days as contemporary artists embrace traditional craft skills and galleries support conceptual craft. So let's make it personal. I never felt comfortable calling myself an artist because I felt Art (note the capital A) should innovate and challenge, it should involve some new process or idea, or it should be made with a clear aim in mind. All I've ever wanted is to enjoy the creative process, to play and experiment and make things that I love and that other people might love too. I've never felt moved to try and make statements or set out to innovate - I take the position that being creative means trying something new, so if I've never eg drawn a horse, drawing a horse is creative enough to satisfy me.

For the last ten years, I have run art history workshops for children, and for the last few of those years, I was incredibly fortunate to work in a particular primary school where many children attended the workshops with great dedication, and several of those challenged me and informed my practice in ways they could never have known. I was constantly pushed to discuss more contemporary art and more women artists, and this meant educating myself. Because of the interests of the children, I began to research women artists in particular. I had a passing knowledge of Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois. I was already a huge fan of Cindy Sherman. But I "discovered" Carmen Herrera, Yayoi Kusama, Christo's long-unacknowledged partner Jeanne-Claude. And I began to see artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, and Yoko Ono in an entirely different light as I learned about their lives and the experiences that informed their work. And the more I learned, the more I fell in love with all these incredible women.

One of the artists I researched was Grandma Moses, an American folk art legend who shot to international stardom when she took up painting at the age of 78. What fascinated me about Grandma Moses was the story that at gallery openings, there would be a table display of her baking and preserves, because in her mind, there was no distinction between her domestic skills and her artwork. And therein, I believe, lies the answer to the question of what differentiates art from craft.

Two anecdotes I'll share and I'll try to keep them short (although you can already see this is entirely contrary to my nature). The first involves reknowned burlesque performer, teacher and scholar, Dr Gypsy Charms of the Academy of Burlesque and Cabaret. Holding forth to a group of students in the pub one evening after class, Miss Charms was asked what the difference is between a burlesque performer and a stripper. She spent some time discussing the historical context of burlesque as an art form, but in the end, she finally said it mostly boils down to the audience. That is, the difference is in the intent of the performer. Are you simply aiming to give your audience bare flesh, or do they want the art of the tease, the story, the big reveal?

The second anecdote is really paraphrasing a fascinating observation from Michael Pollan's excellent book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, which is divided into four sections corresponding to the four classic elements with each one relating to a cooking process (ie: fire=roasting, water=boiling/stewing, air=baking, and earth=fermentation). Pollan starts with roasting because this is the most basic, primal cooking process. It calls to mind "cavemen", the discovery of fire, sacrificial rituals and the hunt. It's only when humans become more technologically advanced that they are able to create the cooking implements that allow them to stew and boil in a pot. At this point, Pollan suggests, cooking is transported from a spectacle to a mundane task, from the campfire to the kitchen, and the cooking duties change hands from men to women. Even today, women are usually the home cooks responsible for preparing the family meals, stuck in the kitchen with a boiling pot that, as if by alchemy, transforms plain ingredients into delicious food. And yet, when there is a celebration - a feast - who is at the forefront? Whether it's flipping burgers on the grill or carving the turkey, when we think of men cooking in the home, more often than not it's part of the elaborate spectacle of a "special" meal, and the daily drudgery is left to the ladies. And what about celebrity chefs and cookery programmes? Once again, when cooking becomes a spectacle, it is often dominated by men. (NB I know this does not represent every household or indeed every cook, but it is the stereotype for a reason - these generalisations, whilst by definition not showing the entire picture, still account for many households)

So we find ourselves back at art and craft. We know that, broadly speaking, craft objects are functional and are more associated with women. And that's where it all comes together: the cookery, the intent, the concepts. For me, the biggest difference between art and craft is the historical, cultural gender gap in the makers and what their intent was. Men got to be Artists, with the intent that their work would be on display in a gallery, revered by the public. Women crafters concerned themselves with beautifying their immediate environment, with making their homes more pleasant places to be, with demonstrating their love for their families by using the simplest materials to transform the functional components of daily life and elevate them into little works of art. The only consideration of the audience was that the work was done out of love, but these creations were not for strangers to admire in a gallery nor to make any statement. They were a quiet, modest way to make the world a better place. And personally I don't aspire to anything greater than that.

No comments:

Post a Comment