Arts versus Crafts

First Thursday is coming up again this week, and I have been thinking once more about the legitimization of Art, and the institutions we use to grant artists and their works value. I’m not just talking about a dollar value, either, but cultural and aesthetic value, too.

My last time doing the First Thursday run was so interesting, precisely because I had the opportunity to see art objects that largely unfiltered by any curatorial process. (Artist retrospectives are fascinating for the same reason.) When artists present out of their studios, I get an opportunity to glimpse not only the final product, but the crucible where artistic alchemy occurs. Alright, so maybe I’m romanticizing a little bit. (Remember my line about the studio where I was pretty sure the guy was using it only to hookup? I’m not the only one indulging in fantasy.)

I’m not an artist, and as much as art is a romantic calling, it is also a profession. Artists either work at another job to support their art in the hopes they will become successful enough that they can do it full time, or they are commercially successful enough (through commissions, grants and other financial resources) that they can do it full time. The eventual sale of each artwork can be emotionally difficult but is vitally necessary to ensure the upward mobility of an artist and the legitimization of his abilities. The evaluation of all aspects of his work – assessing the aesthetic and cultural importance of his contributions, as well as his future potential – are all brought to bear in that vague calculus of establishing the dollar value placed on each piece. The role of a gallery is to represent the artist; they take care of the administrative details of marketing art objects, setting fair prices that the market will bear and that they can reasonably command, in exchange for a certain commission. Galleries also – depending on the reputation of the owner – can be extremely valuable in codifying, publicly, an artist’s reputation. Just showing at a particular gallery can be enough for an artist to get both the publicity and critical acclaim (regardless of whether the art is, intrinsically speaking, any good) for him to climb the ladder from artist to Artist.

So, it is with interest that I regard websites like, where craftspeople and artists can establish online stores and price their own creations, and sell directly to customers without going through a gallery or a boutique. Etsy has developed largely out of the craft movement in the US of the last five years, and much of what is available to purchase is firmly in the “craft” class of goods: prints, pillows, various textile creations, ceramics, jewelry. Etsy allows the democratization of access to art objects, but it also skews the process by which we evaluate their worth. The artist sets the price, not the market, and you, the consumer and art buyer, must hunt for objects of value amidst a sea of mediocre tchotckes. It is a slightly classier version of the rummage sale. There are treasures to be found (and much of what is available is good – for being craft), but I wonder if there are people who have, through a store on Etsy, limited their creative options: they have now become firmly craftspeople instead of potentially bridging that gap into becoming full artists.

On the fine art side, the distinction is even fuzzier, as the resurgence of an arts and crafts movement has dramatically increased the number of large scale craft-based art objects in contemporary art galleries. Formal artists who are represented by galleries are not limiting themselves to the traditional media of paint on canvas, or the slightly edgier photography; artists are turning towards reclaimed blankets, crocheted doilies, hand-carved and brightly painted wooden toy ships, installations that include heaps of second-hand clothes for the viewer to interact with and pick through (make your own art project!), hand-made paper lanterns. This is art made of refuse, it is populist, it is accessible, and it is – at first glance anyway – visually dumbed down a bit. The iconography is taken from hipster dumpster-diving: freecycling is the name of the game. (This was the point of the recent show at SOIL, the endless cycling of second-hand clothing throughout the first and third worlds, and how these goods gain and lose value as they change hands.) Is it a rejection of the structure and formality of traditional fine art? Is it a rejection of the inherent class and wealth structures associated with other media? Or is it simply that Value Village, modular Ikea furniture, and cheap goods from China were what my generation came of age with, and these are our common visual language rather than tormented crucifixion scenes?

I will be curious to see how and where my generation of artists will be received in twenty-five or thirty years. Already some of this craftwork has made it through the studio-gallery-museum cycle: Marie Watt has a blanket stack at the SAM and a full show at Greg Kucera right now; Liz Magor (whose show I hated) is currently on at the Henry; I’ve already discussed Nick Cave’s Sound Suits in a previous post. And I am curious whether the craft-art impulse (like baking cookies) will be seen to have come out of the desire to create comfort at home where there is chaos in the nation and abroad. Time will tell. In the meanwhile, I’m already curious to see what this Thursday will bring.


~ by ecp on December 3, 2008.

One Response to “Arts versus Crafts”

  1. Amusing…at a Steampunk meet-up I attended a short while ago, there was a small debate about where the line between “art” and “craft” is, exactly.

    Steampunk artists are a good example: many re-use old materials, many sell their works through Etsy, Deviantart, or their own web sites (or a combination of these things). Not too long ago some Steampunk artists got together and arranged a gallery show of Steampunk art right here in Seattle (which was awesome, by the way).

    My friend Molly (one of the organizers of the above-mentioned gallery show) sells some of her things through Etsy and Deviantart, but she firmly considers herself an artist, as do her fans.

    So where is that line exactly? To me, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

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