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It is commonly the case that the distinction between what constitutes art on the one hand and craft on the other is made solely on the basis of the medium employed by the maker. A heirarchy exists which deems those who paint to be artists, while ceramicists, for example, are craftspeople and their practice is often considered to be essentially skill-bound and of lesser worth.
However the place which activities such as painting and sculpture have claimed for themselves at the top of this heirarchy has little to do with any intrinsic value or an innate ability to say what other mediums cannot, and far more to do with a process of historical legitimation.
It therefore seems ridiculous to posit the notion that work which locates itself within what we would term a 'craft' tradition has not the potential for invention and discovery which we afford 'art'. It also seems incongruous that at a time when we have largely come to terms with the concerns of conceptual art and accept as valid performance and environmental art, we are still surprisingly ready to deny the potential of much work, by persisting with an archaic, misconceived and limiting notion of 'craft'.
However despite this obvious anomaly, an outmoded art/craft distinction persists. It remains usual for the creative output of a person working with clay to be automatically designated 'craft' and placed firmly outside the sphere of 'art'. Yet it is often the case that work which relies primarily on the manipulation of clay rather than paint (or ink or charcoal…) displays the ability to communicate to its audience a way of viewing and thinking that we normally consider the preserve of 'art'.
For example, to apply the equation ceramics = craft to Lorraine Lee's exhibition Desire and Deception, thus imbuing it with all of the preconceptions which that label implies, be to seriously misrepresent her work. The skillful manipulation of materials is certainly there in the use of clay to form textured slabs and complex drapery: it is also evident in the accomplished use of stains, slips and paint to achieve spatial illusion and deception. Yet it is clear that craft is not the main focus of this exhibition: Lee's ideas are paramount, her work engages visually and conceptually.
The visual illusion and rupture, the confusion of two and three dimensions which Lee orchestrates through the use of two contrasting elements creates tension and unease and calls us to examine more closely what we think we see. While the best pieces in this exhibition display an obvious command of the processes available to her as a ceramicist, Lee's work is concerned with far more than the skillful manipulation of materials and does not sit at all comfortably within the "craft" sphere to which most would be ready to consign it.
In short, the exhibition makes a strong case for the re-examination of our current perceptions of "art" and "craft". It serves to illustrate that any intelligent attempt to elucidate a meaningful relationship between them cannot rely (as it does now) solely or primarily upon the division into medium-based groupings: Groupings which have considerably more to do with traditions of commerce and relations of power than with the potential of visual language.
Most of the objects conventionally called "works of art" (paintings, statues, and the like), are merely complex craftworks given status for social and historical reasons..... They are craftworks consuming skills of two distinct kinds . . . skills of manipulating materials within a tradition on the one hand and skills of manipulating an audience and a market on the other. 1
1. Brook, Donald, "(Real) Art Is not Craft", Craft Australia no. 1 1985, pp 108-109
Reference: Mosey. Anne, "Renegotiating the Rear, Roz macAllan Gallery exhibition catalogue, Desire and Deception