Howard Risatti: Monetary Motivations in Art and Perceptions of Craft

A Theory of Craft by Howard RisattiToday’s guest post comes from Howard Risatti, author of A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, now available in a new paperback edition. Risatti’s book differentiates craft from popular notions of fine art and design. He compares handmade ceramics, glass, metalwork, weaving, and furniture to painting, sculpture, photography, and machine-made design from Bauhaus to the Memphis Group, ultimately describing craft’s unique qualities as functionality combined with an ability to express human values that transcend temporal, spatial, and social boundaries.

With the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery on his mind, Risatti’s post addresses the change over time in motivations for producing art, questioning how this alters the esteem for craft.

Since this is the 40th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian’s official museum of American craft and decorative arts, it seems a good time to muse about art and the art world in general, a world in which craft often struggles to be noticed or, at least, find its place. Having grown up and been educated at a time when art was easily understood as a series of movements expressing avant-garde ideals––think Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Hard Edge, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, etc.—I find it a little disconcerting to try to unravel the myriad currents (if that’s the correct word) that make up today’s art world.

While our earlier understanding of the art world may have been based on a conceptual framework that was too easy, too one-dimensional, fine artists and crafts artists, caught up in the energy of the time, made work that had a sense of purpose and even promise about it as they plugged into these avant-garde currents. At the same time, these currents provided audiences a framework with which to seriously engage both art and craft. Those were heady days indeed and much of the work produced then still looks good today!

Of course one could explain this view of the recent past as mere nostalgia, a backward glance through rose-colored glasses at a moment that never really existed. This, I suspect, would be a common response of many art students today. Though not in those exact words, they would probably suggest, politely of course, that I just didn’t understand, that I didn’t “get it” (without ever explaining what “it” is). But I think I do “get it.” Today’s art world is not only huge compared to that of the ’40s, ’50s and even ’60s, it is also glamorous with money and celebrity attached to it. One has only to think of the number of biennial exhibitions that now exist worldwide—there were about 80 during the 2005–06 period alone. And these biennials are not small ventures either. A Havana Biennial from that period featured about 2,400 works by almost 700 artists representing 57 different countries.

Clearly something in the art world has changed in recent decades. Evidently money and marketing, which support these biennials, are a big part of this change. They have transformed art into a high-profile activity in which the elite now collect contemporary art instead of old masters as they did at the beginning of the last century. While it is great that more and more artists are able to make money, to share in the wealth as it were, one has to wonder what keeps this system going and who is profiting most from it. Is it being driven by a genuine interest in culture in the deepest sense of the word or is it something else? Hard to tell. And what about the role of craft in this art world? Would a museum like the Renwick, devoted as it is to traditional as well as experimental craft, be founded today? I wonder. The very word “craft” seems to have become tainted. In 2002 the American Craft Museum, originally founded as the Museum of Contemporary Craft, changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). The following year the California College of Arts dropped the word crafts from its name.

Howard Risatti, author of A Theory of CraftHoward Risatti is professor emeritus of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to A Theory of Craft, his books include Skilled Work: American Craft in the Renwick Gallery and Postmodern Perspectives: Issues in Contemporary Art.