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Is it Art, Craft or Design?


   Last weekend I was in San Jose, California for the American Association of Woodturners's annual symposium. This was an enormous sprawling event, involving three days of demonstrations, talks, exhibitions, meetings and general socializing among members of the turning community. There was a large trade show of vendors set up there as well, hawking everything from wood to lathes to books and supplies.
   Unfortunately, I missed most of that. The main thing that brought me to the symposium was an invitation to participate in a panel discussion one afternoon. Our panel was organized and moderated by John Kelsey, and included two turners (Merryll Saylan and Frank E. Cummings), the curator for the Museum of Craft and Design (Brett Levine), and myself. The title of our discussion was "What Constitutes Wood Art?"
   This is a perennial topic, at least among those of us in the craft community…my strong belief is that little or no thought is given to the art/craft question by those in the art world. But among crafters the art/craft question never seems to get resolved. Part of the reason for this is simply that not everyone agrees about what the two terms signify. Some use them interchangeably. Others use them arbitrarily. Still others would like to lay claim to some work as art when it really isn't.
   As a starting point, I would like to offer up some general distinctions between the two, as follows:

  • Craft is a material-based, process-oriented practice that values the skillful manipulation of those materials.
  • Art is an idea-based practice that may or may not involve materials, skills, or process. Regardless, these are secondary to the practitioner's intention. The activity of art is essentially a critique, in dialogue with past and/or contemporary art.

Having said that, I'll be the first to acknowledge that these distinctions can be maddeningly arbitrary. For example, this object of everyday use, from Africa, is clearly Craft:


But what happens to its status when a collector buys it and then donates it to an art museum?


As another example, here are two items from the world of Design:

Charles and Ray Eames' "LCW (Lounge Chair Wood)"



Harry Bertoia's "Diamond Chair"

Both are examples of well-designed manufactured objects that embody excellence of form and material use.
But now consider this:


It is by Ellsworth Kelly, an artist who is best know for his abstract paintings. Called "Curve XXI", it is the same signature fan shape as his paintings…except that the material is plain birch. Says a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: "The wood grain is almost a found drawing in these pieces, a magical form of calligraphy." Says Kelly: "When you do something to it [e.g.,stain or varnish], that's furniture."
All this work—Eames, Bertoia, Kelly—dates from the same period in the 1950s, and shares the same aesthetic. Yet two of them are Design and the third is considered Art.

In all these instances, intention (either the maker's or a curator's) seems to be key to how the work is regarded. I have one more example that is even more pointed.

Let's call it A Tale of Four "Bowls".

Bowl #1. This is a standard Bedfordshire model porcelain urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York City. It was manufactured in the early 20th Century.

Bowl #2. One day in 1917, Marcel Duchamps, the French Dada artist who had arrived in the U.S. a little under two years earlier, walked into the Mott Iron Works and bought one of the urinals. He brought it to his New York studio, reoriented it to a position 90° from its normal position of use and wrote on it "R. Mutt 1917"—a pseudonym "signature." Calling the piece "Fountain," he entered it in an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. After much debate by the board members of the Society, it was essentially rejected and hidden from view during the show.
But that wasn't the end of it. Championed by a group of Duchamps' friends, including the photographer, gallery owner, and publisher Alfred Stieglitz, a picture of the piece was subsequently published in a magazine, together with an editorial detailing its rejection from the show and the following statement: "Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object."

Bowl #3. The original piece disappeared shortly afterward; it was probably thrown away. But its infamy lived on, and in 1950 Duchamp authorized the reproduction of his original "Fountain" for an exhibition in New York. The replica, including the black painted signature of R. Mutt, was based on the photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. Ten more copies were subsequently made and ended up in a number of important museums around the world.

Bowl #4. Not too long ago, this image was posted on a design student's blog. It is an example of a three-dimensional model made using rapid prototyping techniques, and was generated from the original Stieglitz photograph.

So what have we got? Bowl #1 is clearly from the world of Industrial Design. Bowl #2 is now acknowledged as one of the most important artworks of the 20th century. Bowl #3, the replica, is definitely a crafted object. And Bowl #4, an exercise in production design, brings us full circle.

Art, craft, and design. Same object, different intentions. Is that all there is to it? Well, no, there is still much more to discuss. To Be Continued…