Howard Risatti’s A Theory of Craft: Good intentions, terrible thinking.
I remember the buzz about Howrad Risatti’s book back in 2006, before it appeared. At last we were going to get a comprehensive theory of craft, written by an erudite scholar who was sympathetic to the craft project. I know the man, and I like him. We all had such high hopes.
When A Theory of Craft came out in 2007, I was overwhelmed with writing Makers, and I didn’t read it at the time. I finally got around to it last month.
I regret to inform you that the book is a bust. It’s stuffed with logical errors and bad ideas. The only reason to read the damn thing is to study how NOT to think about craft. Otherwise, A Theory of Craft serves no purpose whatsoever.
Risatti’s motives are honorable, and I agree with his basic assumptions. Craft is not the same as art. To think clearly about craft, we must search out the characteristics of craft that make it different from both art and design, so we can identify it as a distinct field. Once those particular features are identified, we can build a theory. Or, more properly, a series of theories. So far, so good.
Now, Risatti is an old-school philosopher, which means two things. First, he seeks single reasons. He wants to explain everything with a single idea. Second he wants his reason to apply in every case: he wants it to be universal. He wants a unified, single theory to explain all of craft. Ultimately, it’s his desire for single, universalizing reason that leads him astray. Craft, like life, is complicated and full of contradictions, and can’t be reduced to a unified theory. Can’t.
The book goes bad very quickly, on page 25. As I said, Risatti wants to articulate a single, fundamental difference between craft and art. He seizes on function to do the job. Craft is functional, art is not. Right?
On page 24, Risatti defines function as follows: “...that which an object actually does by virtue of the intention of its maker, in order to fulfill a purpose.” Well, maybe. It depends on how broadly you define purpose. If he means purposes like communicating meanings that work semiotically, or creating pleasure with decoration, then yes. I could accept that rendering of purpose. Trouble is, if you define purpose so broadly, both craft and art look the same. Art communicates semiotically, too. Art can be decorative. So far, Risatti’s definition of function does not distinguish craft from art.
He continues on page 25. Citing The Oxford English Dictionary as final authority, he brings up their definition of the word “applied.” The OED says the term points to the practical. Risatti then goes a step further, and defines the practical as necessitating physical function. This is an assertion, not a well-reasoned argument. He simply states that applied objects (by which he means craft) are “made to carry out some practical, physical function.” Thus he differentiates craft from art. So simple! So elegant! So universal!
But I say: WTF? Craft MUST carry out a physical function? What is this dude smoking?
Any idiot can start naming exceptions. Jewelry doesn’t fulfill a physical function. It functions symbolically, carrying meanings in social settings. Stained glass has no physical function. Nor do ceramic tiles, mosaics, books, paper, ornamental objects, whimseys, toys, models, bells, crowns, table centerpieces, and much, much more. All these objects can be craft objects. Jewelry is widely acknowledged to be a craft, as is stained glass. Craft is widely used to decorate interiors and buildings. There are so many exceptions that Risatti’s rule is invalid from the get-go.
But Risatti steams onward, oblivious. To make his pretty theory hold water, he goes into an absurd exercise of exiling everything that doesn’t fit his rule to the status of non-craft. Jewelry? Not craft. Stained glass? Not craft. Mosaics? Not craft. The problem is that everybody knows, from long custom, that jewelry and stained glass are both crafts, and mosaic very well could be. Frankly, Risatti has his head up his ass.
He puts himself in the position of declaring that a ceramic pot is craft, while a ceramic tile is not. A silver teapot is craft, while a silver centerpiece is not. A woven scarf is craft, but a woven tapestry is not. Such declarations are obviously wrong-headed, and logically untenable.
Why did Risatti commit such a stupid mistake? Like many academic thinkers, he fell in love with his theory. Blinded by admiration for his idea, he decided the problem caused by the multitudes of exceptions lay not in his idea, but in reality. So he adjusts reality to fit. Academic types do this all the time. Do the facts contradict your elegant little story? The solution is simple: change reality! Problem solved! It’s an occupational hazard, and Risatti falls victim.
The difficulty is that the whole book relies on the idea that craft is must have a physical function. Every argument moving forward is based on it. But Risatti offers no proof, no argument. He quietly sneaks it in as an assertion, right there on page 25. For a writer who elsewhere can argue points closely, it’s a fatal error. The entire book is compromised.
Risatti doesn’t stop there, either. He invents more elegant theories. Somewhat later, he decides that all physical functions in craft can be parsed into three categories: containment (as in a vessel or a box), covering (as in clothing or a bedspread), and support (as in a chair or a table). (Pages 31-33.) This is more nonsense. There must be thousands of exceptions. Let me give you a few: tools, weapons, cooking utensils, musical instruments, trophies, carriages and carts, wallpaper, liturgical and ceremonial objects... the list goes on and on. You could play a parlor game with it: “How is Risatti wrong? Let me count the ways.”
Later, he decides that tools must be intended to be a tool to be considered an actual tool. This is clearly a remark by a man who has never worked with his hands. Any craftsman knows that some tools are random objects that can be pressed into service as the need arises. I have a lovely little surface plate that started life as a cut-off, devoid of intention. Despite it’s lack of intentionality, it functions quite nicely. It’s a tool, Howard! Damn it, PAY ATTENTION!
Risatti is a big fan of intentionality, and he keeps returning to it throughout the book. A tool MUST be intended to be a tool. An artwork MUST be intended to be art. However, the facts prove him wrong. Again. Regarding intentionality in art, I can cite two cases. First, we generally accept that artifacts like African and Oceanic masks are works of art, despite the fact that they were originally intended to be religious objects. Or, more trenchantly, any college art teacher can tell you about students making elaborate claims regarding the meaning of their artwork that is clearly not supported by the thing itself. Artists can be major-league bullshitters. Intention by itself is no guarantee of anything.
For the remainder of the book, Risatti lurches from one illogical position to the next. At one point, he concedes that functionality alone cannot distinguish craft from art. So he does a neat trick in concluding that functional objects represent natural law because functions (like a vessel holding water) must comply with the laws of physics. Thus craft objects metaphorically represent nature, while artworks represent culture. It’s a nice idea, locating the difference between craft and art in a metaphor. But it’s still wrong, simply because so many craft objects do not fulfill a physical function.
Ultimately, A Theory of Craft fails miserably. The only parts that are any good, ironically, are when Risatti writes about art. He has a nice section showing how the understanding of works of art change over time, as the culture changes around them. Here, his thinking is clear and his writing is precise. I particularly like this passage because it puts the lie to claims about “timelessness” in art. I never liked that word, timeless. Nicely done, Howard. Too bad you’re not writing about craft.
It’s sad. A book that had so much promise is worthless. It will be reduced to a footnote in the history of craft, and nobody (except a few lonely scholars) will read it. For me, reading the thing was deeply frustrating. My advice to anyone who’s thinking about buying or reading this book: DON’T. It’s a waste of time.