During a conference in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago I happened upon an interesting exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The American Art Museum, which frequently hosts shows from American artists and maintains the nation’s foremost collection of contemporary craft and “folk” art, is currently showing “High Fiber,” an exhibit that “illustrates the diversity of contemporary art created with fiber…” (http//americanart.si.edu/collections/exhibitions.cfml). The exhibit, an excellent example of the innovative use of materials, struck me as a meeting place between art and craft and set my mind thinking about the thinning line between these two categories. Some of the pieces were clearly art, their form completely useless in everyday life. However, others were quite functional as blankets, drapes or tablecloths. It soon occurred to me that the very line I pondered upon was a somewhat artificial one, created in the white spaces inside galleries and museums.
In the past five years the some most renowned and respected crafts museums in America have all done a very interesting thing, changed their names. The American Craft Museum in New York became the Museum of Art and Design. The Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco recently added the word art to their name in order to tap into the high art world. A more recently opened museum, also in California, named itself the San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design, including the important qualifier “design” and avoiding the stigma of an exclusive craft venue. Craft museums from Kentucky to Australia to North Carolina have also all managed to incorporate the word design into their names. Even the Smithsonian’s craft specific museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, does not include the word craft in its title.
However common place these name modifications and exclusions may seem to be in our accelerating world of market driven trends, these revisions have a deeper significance. Perhaps the motivation lies in the crafters themselves. Perhaps the idea of an artisan has been so devalued that crafters in North America and Europe no longer want to be identified and grouped in the same category as the preservers of cultural history that are continually producing crafts from the furthest corners of our world. Perhaps Western designers, crafters and artists must also compete with and segregate themselves from fine artists who are slowly encroaching upon the domain of craft.
As craft objects, originally heralded as objects that co-mingle function and beauty, begin to loose their purposes more and more, designers must redefine themselves and what they do. They start to bridge the line between art and craft, drawing its thinness out to a blurry band. This vagueness is further complicated with the fine art world’s new tendencies toward blockbuster, crowd drawing shows that focus on popular visual culture. Shows like “Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection” at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston reveal the slow filtering of design objects into the fine art world and continue the loss of definition for crafters and the craft world.
These museums and venues have taken a pointed effort to showcase high-end crafts from creators that tend to call themselves designers or artists. While artisans have their products either showcased in anthropological museums that highlight their functional and cultural value while depreciating their aesthetic quality or displayed in storefronts where their beauty and form are commodified and deeper meanings are extracted completely. Where has the balance between beauty and function that prompted craft into existence gone? This is perhaps the most relevant question of all.