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Garth Clark’s Autopsy

November 8, 2009

There’s an interesting little book now available from the Museum of Contemporary Craft: Garth Clark’s “How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement: An Autopsy in Two Parts.” (It’s a print-on-demand title from Lulu.com for $9.00 plus shipping.) In many ways, Garth and I agree. I have long been accusing the craftworld of art envy, and I have long been saying that craft needs to find its own subjects and critical vocabulary. But death? The end of craft as we know it? Clark overstates the case.

 

I respect Garth Clark, and I have known him for a long time. He is a deeply critical thinker, dating back to the time when skepticism was almost a sin. But I think he has grown increasingly out of sync with the times. His thinking has turned towards establishing a craft canon and identifying masterpieces of craft. Huh? These ideas are wildly unfashionable, probably for good reasons. And in conversation, he has been sounding the death knell for crafts for the past five years at least.

 

In his essay, Garth identifies a few key signs of craft’s death. One was the American Craft Museum’s abandonment of the word “craft,” opting for “arts and design” instead. Furthermore, he accuses the American Craft Council of irrelevance, especially considering the program at their 2006 conference in Houston. He says these two institutions are craft’s leadership, and their corruption is a sure sign that the heart of craft has flatlined.

 

In response, I have to point out that the presumed leadership does not constitute the field. MAD and the ACC were flagships, to be sure, but neither institution had been particularly relevant for many years. The ACC was dead in the water for a decade or more. The organization showed some signs of life when Carmine Branagan was Executive Director, but that opportunity was blown when she left in 2007. Beset by funding troubles and a board with neither vision nor serious money, the ACC faces a very uncertain future. As for MAD, they haven’t been much of an advocate for craft since Holly Hotchner took over.

 

It’s too bad, but it’s not a big deal.

 

The ACC was a dominant player in the 50s and 60s, before the rise of the medium organizations. The ACC used to run the only national conferences in the biz, and later its regional councils were the only alternative. But now there’s NCECA and SNAG and GAS and ABANA and the Handweaver’s Guild and the FS and two groups for woodturners and many others besides. Similarly, Craft Horizons used to be the only studio craft magazine, but now there are more than a dozen if you include foreign publications. While the ACC continues to be the only public face for the entirety of craft, there are plenty of active craft ghettoes. The ACC’s illness is no indication that the larger body is sick unto death, not at all.

 

As for MAD, it isn’t the only player in the field either. In a delicious irony, the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland adopted the name the ACC discarded years ago, and they are doing very well, thank you. The Mint Museum of Craft + Design will continue as a boutique museum within the larger Mint Museum, and the Fuller Museum in Brockton has shifted its emphasis to entirely craft. Regional museums like the Racine Art Museum and the Bellevue Arts Museum have very strong craft components, and major encyclopedic museums in Boston, Houston and Philadelphia now have curators dedicated to advancing craft. While it’s unfortunate that craft lost its advocate in New York City, there is more museum support for craft than ever.

 

Pretty lively for a corpse.

 

I think Garth makes another mistake: he assumes there’s a “craft movement.” That’s like saying there’s a painting movement, or a photography movement. No such thing exists.

 

Like all fields of visual production, studio craft consists of more than one kind. On one side, the field shades into high-end trades like faux finish painting or custom cabinetry. On another, it merges with punk DIY. On another side, fine art. On another, design. This is the age of pluralism, and craft is resolutely plural. To say that there is a single craft movement is wrong-headed. That might have been the case a century ago, but now it’s a misrepresentation.

 

One of Garth’s points is that really interesting craft is now readily accepted in the art marketplace. The prejudice that used to force a hard segregation between art and studio craft has eroded. Kathy Butterly, Judith Schaechter and Josiah McElheny all do well these days, with or without an accompanying craft identity. If that’s the case, he reasons, why keep a wall around the field? Good work is not a matter of medium or of identity, but of intelligence and invention.

 

Is art envy a problem for craft? It is, I think – but for reasons that have more to do with education than the practice. Craftspeople have been ambitious to make art – usually meaning sculpture – since the mid-1950s. Furthermore, some very good work has come of the impulse to merge art and craft. (Along with a LOT of junk.) But art envy didn’t kill craft forty years ago, and it won’t kill craft now. So hold those funeral plans. Garth Clark might have the coffin all ready to go, but the stiff is busy making stuff.

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