When we think of art, many of us think of work like paintings and sculpture—pieces that are hung on a wall or placed on a pedestal, meant to be seen but not touched.
But what about chairs? Spoons? Sinks? Utilitarian objects such as these may not immediately seem like art, but they often are—especially when they are created by hand with the great skill and imagination of an artist.
In recent history, there have been heated debates about the differences between “art”—work like paintings and sculptures, meant to convey ideas and elicit emotions rather than serve a purpose—and “craft”—work like baskets and teapots, meant primarily to be functional. This division tends to denigrate craft, implying that its focus on utility makes it inferior to the supposedly more idea-oriented realm of art.
This, of course, completely ignores the rich philosophical, emotional, and aesthetic substance of craft—not to mention the fact that the worlds of art and craft have significant overlap. Though there are differences between, say, Picasso’s Guernica and a tea bowl by Shoji Hamada, judging the cultural or aesthetic value of one over the other does them both a disservice.
I believe that art and craft are fundamentally expressions of the same thing: human imagination and ingenuity; our desire to communicate through color, line, and form; our ability to create objects that are beautiful, useful, or both.
Fortunately, we live in a time in which craft disciplines—from ceramics and glassblowing to woodworking and textiles—are recognized and celebrated as they should be. From the groundbreaking Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. to the influential American Craft magazine, there are countless museums, publications, shows, and schools dedicated to craft. Hundreds of artists working in these disciplines prove that a chair or a lamp can be just as remarkable and culturally significant as a sculpture. Fine craft is more and more understood as the incredibly rich area of creativity and innovation that it always has been.
Additionally, many artists create work that deliberately blurs the boundaries between art and craft, beauty and function. This piece by David Patchen could hold a bouquet of roses, but it is intended more as an exploration of color and form, using the vessel shape for its aesthetic qualities. Works of art such as Tripot by Clifford Lounsbury are deliberately nonfunctional—subverting our expectations and making a statement about the very concept of usefulness.
Not only do artists blur the boundaries between “art” and “craft,” they often blur the boundaries between the traditional and the experimental. Each craft discipline has a fertile history of techniques and traditions from around the world. Artists draw upon this history, mastering time-honored techniques and exploring traditional forms and ideas, all while developing innovative new techniques and expressing contemporary ideas. This might include anything from jewelry created using 3-D printing to tables crafted from upcycled street signs.
This blurring of boundaries is one of the things I find so exciting about these kinds of work—no matter how they’re categorized. The artists creating this work prove that combining the old and the new, the traditional and the experimental, the functional and the beautiful, can create dazzlingly imaginative results.
Furthermore, these artists prove that functional work is valuable for its own sake—that precisely because a bowl or a quilt becomes an intimate part of someone’s life, it can be even more storied and meaningful than it otherwise would. Craft artists prove that creative expression is not limited to any one school, discipline, or philosophy—and that artwork that provides usefulness as well as beauty is just as significant as artwork that we admire on the wall or pedestal.