by Matthew Metzger
It’s difficult to talk about the unnecessary rift between art, design and craft without being somewhat didactic and hypocritical. The “disciplines” need to be separated to some degree to begin a conversation about them in the first place. It’s ambiguous at best to later backpedal and claim that art, design and craft are in fact the same at some very elemental level. One could get around the problem by relying on the frustrating dictum those who understand don’t talk about it, those who talk about it don’t understand. This dictum is both true and false, like just about everything else worth thinking about. If one can walk into, for instance, a Louis Kahn designed building housing a Hugo Franca carved chair next to an Agnes Martin painting and not immediately grasp the “oneness” of art, design, architecture and craft, then I’m not sure writing about that “oneness” is going to change anything. But, then, what is writing for?
While I hesitate to cite as evidence something as dubious as personal experience, I make paintings and design and build furniture and to me there isn’t much difference in the creative aspect of the two. Other than the rhythm and demands of the work, which can be significant. But I don’t expect the reader to take my anecdotal word for it without at least a few additional thoughts. So this is written for that purpose for those of us who haven’t altogether lost faith in the power of language to explain (or at least illuminate) something that’s perhaps intuitive.
Painters and sculptors used to be considered craftspeople in much the same way as a weaver or potter. Suffice it to say that the Renaissance and Enlightenment changed that, at least in the West. Craft and design was dualistically and dogmatically separated from the “fine arts”. Utility is often the arbitrary line in the sand demarcating the former from the latter, although there are other markers like reproducibility, commercialization, or use of materials. Fine arts are supposedly meant to give us some type of refined, sophisticated pleasure while craft and design objects provide pleasure from their utility. But here is the crux of the issue: an artful object, whether a painting or a table, transcends the intentionality of utility or purpose. This is another case of je ne sais quoi, but so is everything else that’s interesting.
To a certain extent the avant-garde of what might be called the “aesthetic world”, as opposed to the confining and loaded “art world”, is dismissing the false dichotomies between art, design and craft in rather poetic ways. Axel Vervoordt is an “interior designer” but also a curator, gallerist and dealer who represents the estates of great post-war deceased artists like Antoni Tapies, Lucio Fontana and also living contemporary artists like Anish Kapoor and El Anatsui. He’s also a dealer of antiques and modernist and contemporary furniture. Vervoordt might pair a Fontana Concetto spaziale slash painting with an 11th century primitive monastery table. His “vignettes” create a dialogue on the unnecessary dichotomies at issue here, and also on time and the void. The arrangements, and the elusively meaningful space between them, say just as much as the pieces themselves. Over a five-year period he presented a three-part exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice exploring time and infinity. In these exhibits he combined archaeological artifacts, contemporary and modern art, old master paintings, ancient sculpture, antiques and modern design. These exhibitions quietly reminded us that at the most basic level no difference exists between these objects. His exhibits were among the most popular at the Venice Biennales.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, another artist represented by Vervoordt, just unveiled his glass teahouse mondrian pavilion in Venice. This isn’t installation art, but is an actual tearoom meant to house an actual Japanese tea ceremony. Sugimoto is not an architect or designer; his chosen medium has traditionally been photography. His teahouse is just one example of a contemporary artist casting aside dualisms to integrate multiple disciplines into a holistic vision. Note the title also cleverly does is own integrating, this time of Eastern and Western notions of art. Many other artists, most notably Martin Puryear and Louise Bourgeois, have devoted their lives to thinking about and making objects that question art and craft dichotomies. Other artists blindly appropriate traditional craft practices into “fine art”, with varying success but usually only enforcing the pointless dualities.
Concerted, non-anecdotal efforts have been made to question these dualities. Duchamp supposedly taught us that anything could be art. Scores of others have reiterated the point ad nauseam, most of them inadvertently proving that anything can be art but usually isn’t (or isn’t any good). The dada and fluxus “attitudes” questioned the false dichotomy between art and life (which is a much broader topic than the art versus craft and design dichotomy). These artists and movements were quite adept at questioning and conceptualizing, but what about actually making artful objects that speak aesthetically to a holistic, non-dualist approach? It’s relatively easy for academics to intellectualize away this type of aesthetic, which has been happily and self-servingly done mainly because this aesthetic is frustratingly difficult to achieve.
The Bauhaus is the best Western example of the reunification of craft, design and “fine art.” But again aesthetics was subordinated to the Bauhaus’ insistence on art’s lofty duty to eradicate class distinctions. We need to look east for the most important example of a non-dualist approach to art and design that actually satisfies the criteria of transcending the intentionality of utility and purpose. Japan’s aesthetic of the everyday recognizes the quiet beauty of a pot, or knife or chair in the same manner as a painting. In Japan, where potters are national heroes, one doesn’t have to endure the snobbery that distinguishes between fine art and decoration.
In the end, our quest for something like “knowledge” through categorization has hindered the development of something more akin to “sensitivity” or “intelligence.” Our notion of the “purposelessness” of art has desensitized us to the potential for poetic beauty in everyday objects. It’s a shame, because life can be much richer when we allow for the possibility of a useful object to transcend its own usefulness (which isn’t to say we stop using that object, which of course is the point). The person who loves his or her soup bowl is quite simply better off for it. In this intensely personal manner of recognizing beauty in the everyday, where the value of an object is derived less in the creation of the object than in the recognition of it, each of us can live up to Joseph Beuy’s proclamation, borrowed from Novalis, that “everyone is an artist.”
Matthew Metzger is an artist, designer and furniture maker based in Cincinnati. His paintings are represented locally by Miller Gallery, and his furniture by Voltage, as well as other galleries and design showrooms nationally. His website is www.metzgerfinearts.com.