Interdisciplinary. Community. Advocacy. Humor.
©Bruce Metcalf 2014
After the recent ruckus about my “abstract crapola” remark on my Facebook feed, a number of interesting issues emerged out of the blizzard of outrage. I want to consider two of the more controversial of them. The first is that production craftspeople should be exempt from judgment. The second is that the advancing age of many makers has no relevance to anything whatsoever, and is politically incorrect to talk about. Well, I absolutely disagree with both propositions. In this essay, I want to look at the question of judgment. I will explore age in another essay.
One of the ideas that lurked in my Facebook thread was that production craft should not be subject to the same kinds of judgments as art. The logic goes something like this. The craftsperson who works in the production world is just trying to make a living, and he or she does so by making objects that cater to a certain clientele. The work must be appealing. Otherwise it doesn’t sell. Therefore, in a sense, the taste of the audience dictates what the maker produces. Being dictated by an audience, the work shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as art. There was a further, unstated, implication that the work shouldn’t be judged at all. Its success in the marketplace is the only legitimate measure.
I shouldn’t have to point out that the idea that work should never be judged justifies work that is inept, kitschy and in formidably bad taste. If your audience wants smiley faces made of Sculpey, that’s OK? You’re only filling a demand? This, of course, sets off a race to the bottom. The lowest common denominator rules.
I don’t think anybody in the craft community believes this is a good thing. Nobody wants to have their booth next to one packed with crappy smiley faces. You want to have good company that establishes a certain level of quality. That’s why experienced craftspeople shun mall shows and similar entry-level events. Low quality drags you down, and implies that you’re no better than the company you keep.
Luckily, there is a barrier to bad work in craft shows. It’s the jury. Everyone accepts the jurying process as a way to cull out the most egregious examples of bad taste and clumsy craftsmanship. Most makers are glad of it. So, let’s face it: as long as there’s a jury process, there’s judgment. Nobody who exhibits in a craft show is exempt. EVERYBODY is judged. And everybody agrees that this is necessary and unavoidable. So the notion that production craft should be exempt from judgment is completely false, right from the get-go.
But you could say that, even so, work on view at a craft fair should not be criticized the same way an art critic examine works of art. It’s simple, honest craft, and shouldn’t be subject to the same kinds of judgments that are applied to art.
Let me cite five exceptions that almost everybody would agree with.
First, and most importantly, every self-respecting production craftsperson I know condemns knockoffs. Uniformly, people agree that the theft of a living maker’s designs is wrong. Theft is unethical. Perhaps more importantly, theft takes money out of the pocket of the person who originated the design. The inventor pays a price in lost sales every time her design is stolen.
Make no mistake, this is judgment. We look at the knockoff and judge whether or not it is sufficiently original. (In exactly the same way, we look at innovative work and perceive its newness.)
As I walked around the Baltimore ACC show, I saw four or five jewelers who had knocked off Pat Flynn’s curved bracelet. You know, the black turned-up bracelet with the tiny collar-set diamonds or the speckled gold onlay. He invented it years ago. I was surprised at the sheer boldness of these knockoffs. Don’t these people have any shame?
Unfortunately, there’s no way for the ACC to enforce a rule against design theft. It’s up to the originator to enforce his rights. I wish Pat Flynn was walking around the Baltimore show, handing out cease-and-desist letters from his lawyer. That would get those little cheats’ attention. And if they persist, then Pat should sue them. For many tens of thousands of dollars. Complainants have won big lawsuits with lesser cause. And it would take only one or two successful lawsuits to put a chilling effect on everyone who contemplates stealing from another craftsman.
There are two cases when theft is actually OK. The first is an homage, when the innovator is being honored by the imitation. In the case of homage, it is assumed that everybody knows where the design came from, and that it is being quoted respectfully. However, I have my doubts that homage would be so ethical in serial production. One, yes, Twice, maybe not. The second piece moves away from homage and towards profiteering.
The other case is when the innovator is long dead, and his heirs cease to have a financial interest in his designs. Nobody will get upset if you steal from the French Baroque, for instance. In fact, such referencing is a common practice in the art world, and everybody understands it as a way to place your work in a specific context. Quotation can also be used as a form of commentary. In the interests of full disclosure, I often quote works of decorative arts, sometimes quite literally. However, I never steal from a source that may still be subject to copyright protection. Most of my sources are more than a century old.
We are also attentive to matters of ethically sourcing raw materials. Is there anyone who condones the use of blood diamonds that fund brutal insurgencies in Africa? Does anyone think it’s OK to use endangered tropical hardwoods? Do we think it’s reasonable to use gold that is mined with processes that poison the environment and displace local populations? Most craftspeople find such practices unacceptable. Again, this is judgment. It concerns ethics, but it is judgment nonetheless.
The issue of ethical sourcing is related to sustainability. There is a great deal of interest these days in materials and processes than can be renewed, and that have a modest carbon footprint. Given the threats of mass extinctions and global warming, sustainability has taken on the cast of an ethical problem. Some people make judgments about it.
We often make judgments about craftsmanship. In many cases, evidence of poor craftsmanship is easy to see. In jewelry, if you see file marks on a polished surface, you know is bad craft. In furniture, if there’s a gap in a joint, it’s bad craft. If the edges of a weaving are lumpy and crooked, it’s bad craft. Everybody within a discipline knows the signs, and makes judgments all the time. Generally, we think good craftsmanship is better than bad, although exceptions are made in the cause of expressiveness and authenticity.
A subset of craftsmanship is durability. If a chair collapses, we can legitimately say it’s badly made. Ditto the pin catch that won’t close properly, or the fabric that frays too easily. These are all objective measures of performance, and I think we universally agree that craft objects that fail to work properly can be judged negatively. Who would argue with that?
I have enumerated five kinds of judgments that can be made despite the fact that work might be tailored to the marketplace, with the taste of its audience in mind: Originality, ethical sourcing of materials, sustainability, good craftsmanship, and durability. These are judgments that can be applied throughout the craft world, and I think most are not controversial. Again, nobody is exempt from judgment because they cater to the tastes of their clientele. Every maker can legitimately be judged. It is specious to claim that any maker should get a pass.
However, I need to stress that these are not aesthetic judgments. Four out of five are based on observable facts, not taste. One could argue that makers who work with the market in mind should be immune to aesthetic judgments, because those are matters of taste, not fact.
OK, let’s look at aesthetic judgments.
It’s obvious that a large number of production craftspeople claim to be making art. At Baltimore, I’d say that about a quarter of all exhibits were of non-functional work, and thus aligned with painting, sculpture, or the decorative arts. And a number of these makers claim to be artists. Just look at Myra Berg’s website: the very first word you see is “Artworks.” Yup. Myra claims to be an artist.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, art has been the subject of commentary and critical scrutiny. Art and criticism go together, hand in glove. That’s the deal. You can’t evade it. Once you use the word “art,” you open yourself up to comparison with every artwork that has ever been done, and you open yourself up to negative judgments. (Positive judgments too, but nobody minds a compliment. We only get grumpy when it’s negative.) In my book, people who claim to be artists but who want to be exempt from criticism are frauds. I say: if you make the claim, take the responsibility.
I have said many times that fields are defined by their discourses. The conversations and arguments that occur within a field define it. For instance, because artists and critics no longer speak about beauty very much, beauty no longer defines art. (It used to.) Given the centrality of discourse to the field of art, it has become essential that the artist engage in the discourse. This is simply a fact of contemporary art, and has been so since the 1870s. One is expected to make a contribution to the ongoing conversation. A good artist speaks to the discourse. A bad artist pretends it doesn’t exist.
Discourse is always a back-and-forth, and criticism is an essential part of it. The artist puts her work in the public arena, which invites response – both good and bad – from the audience. Part of that audience is critics. Within the art world, it’s assumed that criticism can be quite harsh. Look at how French critics reacted to early Matisse: they called him a wild animal! That’s how we get the “Fauves.” The word was originally intended as an insult. Over time, the insult was co-opted as a badge of honor. The point is that criticism can be rough-and-tumble, with no quarter given. Artists know this. They also know that the best way to respond to criticism is with great work. You can also respond to negative criticism with counter –arguments. You simply marshal facts and logic that rebut the negative argument. Criticism is a process of claim and counter-claim, and sometimes the debates get very heated. Which, of course, makes it fun for the neutral observer.
Everybody in the art world accepts negative criticism as an essential part of the discourse. Unfortunately, this is not so true in the craft world. A culture of niceness pervades the crafts. You don’t publicly criticize your colleague. That’s bad manners. You might trash them privately over a beer after the show closes – and I know this happens all the time - but going public is bad manners.
As a direct result, it has been very difficult to start an effective discourse in the crafts. Everybody’s nice; nobody goes negative. But without the negative there’s no healthy back-and-forth, no true discourse. Assertions go unchallenged. Bad work is never criticized in public. Careful thought is never recognized, and bad thinking is never challenged. In the long run, the lack of strong criticism has hurt all of the crafts badly. Even the production crafts could profit from criticism, from good arguments. But public discourse rarely happens.
Make no mistake, the culture of niceness has its uses. One time, I was at the Philly Craft Show after closing time, when the roof sprang a rather large leak. Water was pouring into several booths, but the owners of the booths had left the building. Several other exhibitors dropped everything and sprang into action, They quickly moved all the threatened items out of the way, where they could not be damaged. I was quite moved by this selfless desire to help out. I find it laudable.
The desire to help is the upside of niceness. The suppression of debate is the downside. I just wish the field could mature to the point where people could still be helpful, but also be willing to be critical. And to endure it.
At any rate, my point is that once you use the word “art,” you must be available for criticism...even the harshest criticism. You have an obligation to join the debate, and there’s no way around it.
(In my Facebook comment, I was specifically referring to a kind of craft that claims implicitly to be art: non-functional, abstract compositions that are basically forms of painting and sculpture. These objects, clearly aligned with art, must be available to criticism, even if it’s rude.)
But what of makers who don’t claim to be artists? Shouldn’t they be exempt?
Now, I think there are different kinds of crafts, each with its own set of values and objectives. Studio craft with aspirations to art is one kind, production craft is another, trade craft and hobby craft are others. Borders are blurry, of course, but in the main you are looking at distinct fields. And I would also say that each field has its own determination of quality.
So, what do we think constitutes quality in production work? Nothing? We can’t find anything notably good in production?
I think we do. We value originality, as I noted already. And we value it highly.
Since I know production jewelry better than the other mediums, let me mention some living jewelers who are notable for their innovations. Pat Flynn and Ford & Forlano, whom I included in Makers. Reiko Ishiyama. Biba Schutz. Roberta and David Williamson. Petra Class. Lily Fitzgerald. Tom Herman. Jim Kelso. These are some of the production jewelers I admire most, and my admiration is widely shared. Everybody knows that these people developed a look that is entirely their own. Their style is unmistakable. Each of these jewelers developed their signature look slowly, over a period of years. Some have settled into their style, others continue to grow and change. Either way, originality is crucial.
I think anyone who follows production jewelry over the years knows who the innovators are. If you know the field, you know who makes the inventions. Even if a new idea looks weird at first, the astute observer will recognize it right away. Furthermore, observers keep something of a scorecard: who has made the most innovations?
For instance, Pat Flynn has invented a number of types: His black-and-white heart. His nail brooch. His nail bracelet. His black steel cuff, which is so widely imitated. Flynn has a long and well-known record of inventing new jewelry, and he is widely respected for it. With justification, I think.
Originality is a relatively modern virtue. In the middle ages, painters were rewarded for depicting religious subjects in a manner that was comfortable and familiar. The painters who first explored perspective and chiaroscuro were outliers. But eventually, as art developed a secular following, artists began to be rewarded for their inventions, not their conformity. The story of art since the Renaissance is largely the story of inventions, one after another. We all know the tale.
Most of us – the vast majority, I venture – value originality over imitation. Invention is incredibly hard. Copying is ridiculously easy. We all know it. Most of us pass judgments based on originality all the time.
Ultimately, even craftspeople who let the taste of their audience dictate their design decisions must be subject to the judgment of originality. It is possible to be inventive, and still give people what they want. Look at MPC players: nobody knew they wanted an iPod until Apple designed it. Then, millions wanted it. And it was brilliantly innovative.
So I reject the assertion that production craftspeople must be exempt from judgment. I can think of no reason to give anybody a pass. And I think most people agree, whether they care to admit it or not.
At some point, we all concede that judgment is necessary - in the case of jurying craft shows - and good - in the case of condemning knockoffs and rewarding invention. We all value good craftsmanship. Most of us hold to some kind of ethical standards.
I don’t know why some people are reluctant to separate the wheat from the chaff. I guess it’s the old democratic impulse: the desire to erect a big tent from which nobody is excluded. But here’s the thing: judgment does not push anybody out of the tent. It should encourage people to try harder. It should force people to think about how they, too, can get better, and maybe someday become one of the best. What’s wrong with that?