Howard Risatti: Environmentalism Reviving Tradition in Art

A Theory of Craft by Howard RisattiWe welcome a guest post today 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. In this post, Risatti revisits a question he received concerning ecological sensitivity for craftsmen and women, praising the teachings of M. C. Richards and others.


Several years ago I was on a panel at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. The occasion being part of the festivities celebrating the 100th anniversary of Greenwich House Pottery, we were asked to speak about ceramics in particular and craft in general. After we presented our views about what we saw as the current state of the craft field, the forum was opened to the audience for questions and comments. A lively discussion ensued during which it became increasingly clear that we, the panelists, had rather divergent points of view about the nature of craft and its status vis-à-vis fine art. Not surprisingly, the audience also seemed divided along similar lines, which, in itself, reveals a great deal about the state of flux in which the craft field finds itself at the moment.

However, what has stuck in my mind was not our disagreement—as I recall, we didn’t agree on much—but my non-response to a comment made by a young woman in the audience. Because of the very nature of the field, I believe craftsmen and women have always been interested in material, not only how to manipulate it into useful form, but also how to acquire it and process it into a workable substance. This interest formed the backdrop to her remarks. As she stood addressing the panel, she mentioned studying in a ceramic class of some sort or other with M. C. Richards. I am sure (at least I hope) that everyone in the audience knew of M. C., the author of Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. First published in 1962, this book reflects something of the back-to-the-earth, counter-culture movement of 1960s as did M. C.’s teaching methods. For as this young woman recounted, after the class had finished, they formed a kind of procession and carried their unused clay back to the earth.

While it would be easy to mock this as smacking of essentialism, a kind of empty ritual, there is something important going on here that speaks to the value of art itself. In the early ’90s, Suzi Gablik began focusing her critical attention on art and environmental issues. In her book, The Reenchantment of Art, she has a chapter titled “The Ecological Imperative” in which she discusses the work of artists such as Othello Anderson (she illustrates one of his painting titled Acid Rain) and Fern Shaffer, who did a performance on the shores of Lake Michigan called Crystal Clearing, Winter Solstice. Gablik also writes about Dominique Mazeaud’s art project The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande River in which the artist gathered up refuse thrown into the river.

At the time I was a bit skeptical about the value of such projects because I believed only through technology could we clean the environment and, as it were, save the planet. But I now realize that I was very wrong about this for today we do have the technology. In fact, we have had it for a long time. What we don’t have, certainly not enough of, is the will and the commitment to use this technology in order to change the way we exist in the world.

So as a kind of apology to this young lady, I want to stress that what artists like M. C. Richards and others were doing by raising our sensitivity to ecological issues was indeed very important. It was an attempt to help us find the will to actually do something. However, I think there was something else going on as well. Their work, sometimes forcefully, sometimes feebly, was trying to make us aware of the value of things beyond the strictly practical and utilitarian, to give the world a spiritual dimension if you like—not necessarily religious, but certainly something bordering on the sacred. In doing this, whether consciously or not, they were reclaiming something of art’s traditional humanistic purpose, a purpose that, unfortunately, had waned in the shadow of high style Late Modernism and the cynical irony of Post Modernism.

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 Crafthis books include Skilled Work: American Craft in the Renwick Gallery and Postmodern Perspectives: Issues in Contemporary Art.