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Is it Art, Craft or Design? Part 2


In my previous blog on this topic, I related the Tale of Four Bowls…the long story of Duchamp's famous "fountain" and the journey from design to art to craft and back to design. That post ended by asking if it was all simply a matter of intention. The short answer is yes and no.

Intention counts. But it's important to get clear what we mean by intention in the first place. What I'm thinking about when I use that term relates back to the distinction I first proposed between craft and art, which was this:

  • 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.

One version of making something that is in some form of dialogue with other work is very familiar to all of us: we simply talk about being influenced by such and such a work or maker. But to simply pattern your work on another person's doesn't necessarily make it art (even if the original is considered art!); the "dialogue" has to have more to it than that. To better clarify this, here's another example, involving two pieces by the Romanian artist Constantin Brâncuși.

In the foreground is a wooden sculpture called Endless Column (1918). In the background, on the high pedestal, is a bronze sculpture called Bird in Space (1926). Bird in Space has an interesting story, with a cast of characters that includes our friend Duchamp. Here is an abbreviated version from Wikipedia:

In October 1926 Bird in Space, along with 19 other Brâncuși sculptures, arrived in New York harbor aboard the steamship Paris. While works of art are not subject to custom duties, the customs officials refused to believe that the tall, thin piece of polished bronze was art and so imposed the tariff for manufactured metal objects. Marcel Duchamp (who accompanied the sculptures from Europe), American photographer Edward Steichen (who had purchased Bird in Space and was to take possession of it after the exhibition), and Brâncuși were all indignant—the sculptures were set to appear at the Brummer Gallery in New York City and then the Arts Club in Chicago. Under pressure from the press and artists, U.S. Customs agreed to rethink their classification of the items, but until then released the sculptures on bond under “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies.” However, the customs appraiser eventually confirmed the initial classification of items and said that they were subject to duty. He stated that “several men, high in the art world, were asked to express their opinions for the Government. One of them told us, ‘If that's art, then I'm a bricklayer.’ Another said, ‘Dots and dashes are as artistic as Brâncuși's work.’” In general, it was their opinion that Brâncuși left too much to the imagination. The next month Steichen filed an appeal to the U.S. Customs’ decision.

Under the 1922 Tariff Act, for Bird in Space to count as duty-free it must be an original work of art, with no practical purpose, made by a professional sculptor. No one argued that the piece had a practical purpose, but whether or not the sculpture was art was hotly contested. Fueling the controversy was an earlier court ruling that established that sculptures were art only if they were carved or chiseled representations of natural objects “in their true proportions.” A series of artists and art experts testified for both the defense and the prosecution about the definition of art and who decides exactly what art is.

In November 1928 the presiding judges finally reached a decision…in favor of the artist. Their decision concluded:

“The object now under consideration…is beautiful and symmetrical in outline, and while some difficulty might be encountered in associating it with a bird, it is nevertheless pleasing to look at and highly ornamental, and as we hold under the evidence that it is the original production of a professional sculptor and is in fact a piece of sculpture and a work of art according to the authorities above referred to, we sustain the protest and find that it is entitled to free entry.”

This was the first court decision that accepted that non-representational sculpture could be considered art.


The court's reasoning aside, it is clear that Brâncuși was critiquing…was in dialogue with…the long tradition of representational sculpture. In fact, this conversation was part of a larger discourse at that time: how could the elements of visual language—line, shape, form, motion, direction, color, texture, pattern, proportion, etc etc—convey meaning or express feelings without recourse to pictorial or figurative representation? Not only did this involve the whole art and design world, which was significantly more integrated at that time; it connected to larger social, political, economic and intellectual issues of the day—everything from industrial production to Freud's theory of dreams. It was a heady time. In fact, you could say that Abstraction was on the wing, and Modernism was about to take flight. And it was very much Brâncuși's intention to engage this in his work.


Okay. Now take a look at these two works by Mark Sfirri, a contemporary turner/ furnituremaker:

I think you could safely say that this work has been influenced by Brâncuși's sculpture. Whether this was consciously, or not, I couldn't say for sure, not having discussed it with the Sfirri. Regardless, there are some very interesting correspondences between the two in their use of form, gesture, and other visual elements, and you could readily discuss Sfirri's work in the context of abstract art. Did Sfirri intend his work to be discussed in this context? I don't know; I actually haven't ever seen it discussed that way, which is too bad. What I have seen is a very different discussion of his work. Sfirri is highly accomplished and imaginative in his use of a technique called multi-axis turning. This is succinctly explained in the following diagrammed sequence:

Two things are immediately obvious. First, the drawings identify this as a candlestick, an object with a specific function. And second, the drawings illustrate a concern with a skillful process-oriented manipulation of materials. Put them together and what have you got? We are squarely in the context of craft.

Now the interesting…and, I would say, unfortunate…thing about this diagram is that it appears in an important survey book—Woodturning in North America Since 1930—that was written in conjunction with a major exhibition of the same name that was organized back in 2001  to celebrate the coming of age of "lathe art." And yet, the preoccupation with technique is so pervasive throughout the book/catalogue that it constantly undermines the aspirations of the authors and exhibition organizers to claim a place for this work in the art world.

So now, in addition to Intention, we have the issue of Context.

There's still more to say about Technique, but that will have to wait until next time. To be continued…


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