Categorisation is as necessary to human life as breathing. We must have names and labels if we are to differentiate between one thing and another. To imagine a world without categories is to indulge in a spurious kind of intellectualism.
The problem arises when we come across things that defy easy classification, be they objects, processes, or states of being. Some things don’t fit easily into their prescribed boxes, if they fit at all. Take, for example, the question of what is art. Is a piece of jewellery art, craft, or both?To most people such considerations will seem unimportant, but in the art world, especially the contemporary art world, nothing causes more arguments, even fights, than the question of what is art and who deserves to be called an artist.
It seems to me that these arguments are never so much about wanting to clarify the unclarifiable as much as they are about power and status. A potter wants to be recognised as an artist not because he wants his work to receive proper critical attention, but because he wants to move up the food chain. As a writer, that has been a lot easier for me to achieve than if I’d been, say, a quilt maker: but is what I do so very different from quilt making?
There are those, inside and outside the art world, who see a clear distinction between art and craft, but to my mind the one is indivisible from the other. The first Bauhaus manifesto – which was published in 1919 and features a woodcarved cathedral on its front cover – boldly declared, ‘We must all turn to the crafts.’
The fact is all art involves craft, or as William Morris put it, ‘The true basis of art lies in the crafts’. At a fundamental level, the process of writing is no different to that of painting or silversmithing. In each case technique is the primary concern. In the act of creation, artists often lose sight of what it is they set out to make. In fact most artists – the good ones – make a conscious effort not to obsess about the finished product and choose instead to focus on the nuts and bolts, so to speak, of its construction. Only at the end of the process are they able to step back and see what they’ve created. And even at this stage they cannot resist tinkering with the machinery. When other people read my work they concern themselves, largely, with the ideas and sentiments contained therein. When I read it I tend to focus on things like grammar and syntax. I may be an artist, but I’m also an inveterate craftsman.
The fact that words like construction and machinery are not readily associated with art doesn’t necessarily invalidate them as analogies for the artistic process. When I write a book I’m making something, I’m putting it together as a carpenter puts together a table. Of course I could make a distinction between writing and carpentry on the grounds that one activity is mental while the other is physical, but it would be a facile distinction since nothing comes into existence without thought. And this holds true with even the most abstract forms of creation. There was thought, and I dare say even meditation, behind Pollock’s supposed madness.
Conventional wisdom maintains that art is about ideas and the communication of those ideas, and that craft is chiefly about function. In many cases this is perfectly valid. There’s no denying the difference between Picasso’s motivation for painting Guernica and that of a person who makes candleholders.
However, confusion reigns when we consider that there are as many functional art works as there are craft objects that ‘speak’ to us, intentionally or otherwise. The fact is that craft objects need not be limited to decoration, ornamentation or function. A teapot, though made to be used, can also be admired for its aesthetic qualities. And it can be just as eloquent an expression of thought as a poem.
To my mind, a beautifully tailored suit has as much right to be exhibited in an art gallery as a shark embalmed in formaldehyde. And yet for some reason tailors are not regarded as artists – not even those on Saville Row. It’s true that things are slightly different for fashion designers. They get a small and grudging amount of respect from the art world, but only the very avant-garde, the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, whose outré creations must be art since they rarely make the transition from the catwalk to the high street without going through some kind of ‘toning down’ process.
But my interest lies less in them and more with those who help them to achieve their ‘artistic’ visions. I’m referring to the faceless thousands working behind the scenes in the fashion industry, those who cut, stitch, measure and fit. Are they not artists too?
There are dressmakers out there as intuitive and inventive with their sewing machines as sculptors are with their chisels, yet their talent is grossly undervalued by those who decide on what is art and who can be considered an artist. A friend of mine is a dabhand at crocheting, the skill of her needlework a marvel to behold, but despite the beauty of her creations, she undersells her ability for the simple reason that crocheting has become synonymous with the dull and the uninspiring. And just as it is for her, so it is for almost everyone who works in crafts.
There’s a great deal of difference between a ceramicist’s work and that of a milliner, between an embroider’s and a wood carver’s, but what unites them all is the extent to which they’re under-appreciated by the kingmaker’s in the art world. Visual art – by which I mean those works that are created solely for the purpose of exhibition and are generally regarded as being the artists’ ‘view’ of the world – is now so prevalent within the art world as to constitute a hegemony.
The truth is that no matter how successful a basket weaver may become within her own field, the chances are she’ll never receive the attention, far less the money, of a Tracy Emin or a Damien Hirst. She’s not an artist you see, she’s only a craftsperson, and must therefore confine herself to the margins of the main action. Grayson Perry, who’s known more for being a cross-dresser than a Turner prize-winning potter, has gone on record to articulate this frustration. ‘I think the art world had more problems coming to terms with me as a potter than it did with my choice of frocks’.
And yet he ploughed on regardless, his dissatisfaction at being undervalued outweighed by his passion for making things. He carried on because he felt compelled to do so and eventually he got his just desserts. Sadly, his success is the example which proves the rule, namely, that within the art world, craftspeople are consistently overlooked. They just don’t get the credit they deserve and it’s high time that changed.