Wednesday, June 06, 2012

presence of hand...

I have been reading Howard Risatti's book, A Theory of Craft which explores the relationship between craft and "fine" art. He states,
"It is clear that fine art, as exemplified by painting and sculpture, has an advantage over craft in that it is automatically assumed to be art. This assumption became part of the intellectual discourse of fine art with the development of aesthetic theory as a special branch of philosophy concerned with the beautiful. The result is a predisposition to regard paintings and sculpture as aesthetic objects, as works of art, so that they are approached in a frame of mind that not only allows but encourages the aesthetic to come forth. The opposite is true of craft. There is a tendency to approach craft in a frame of mind that, if not completely indifferent to its aesthetic possibilities, sees these possibilities as extremely limited. In part this is because, as I hope I have shown, fine art aesthetic theory dismissed the functional from the possibility of being art. In many ways this dismissal now forms the core of the tradition of "fore-understanding" that viewers bring to the craft object.

"With the onset of commercial production during the early decades of the Industrial Revolution, this dismissal became more pronounced... it has essentially remained in place so that craft objects are seldom thought capable of opening to the beholder a realm of serious contemplation as works of fine are are presumed to do."
I don't think philosophy alone can explain the elevation of painting and sculpture over crafts. Painting, sculpture and architecture, the "fine arts" can be visually perceived. Crafts often cannot be understood without some form of tactile engagement.

I think you can perhaps see in yourself as you stand before a painting in a museum, that there is an appropriate distance from work that must be maintained and within that distance is a demonstration of shared reverence. The hands must be held in such a way that you are not inclined to touch. There is a posture of reverence and deference that must be exhibited to avoid reprimand. And so craft objects that are of a more personal nature, that must be explored by hand to perceive their tactile as well as visual qualities are granted lower status. The intelligence invested in their making is not observable from a safe distance, and is thus often ignored.

The other day, when I was delivering work to the Crystal Bridges Museum Store, I walked over to where my work was displayed and observed a man examining one of my small boxes. He was holding it in his hands and exploring its qualities. (perhaps also looking for its price.) You cannot engage hand-work fully without the capacity to touch, and I suspect museum stores are so popular because all that pent up inclination to touch must find release through some opportunity to engage the hands as well as the eyes in what they are by powerful inclination destined to do. If you see something you like, the next inclination is to touch.

There are reasons that Educational Sloyd proposed the making of useful and beautiful objects. There is an egolessness rather than a pretentiousness inherent in objects intended for handling and actual use. There is a sense of provenance and permission as they pass from hand to hand. And rather than creating the distance of reverence, hand crafted objects suggest union and wholeness.

On my desk I have a small red-painted Dalarna horse from Mora, Sweden. It is a typical Swedish souvenir, but rather than buying mine when I was in Mora, I found it in a Clear Spring School rummage sale for $1.00. Under the layer of red paint, a pattern of knife strokes can be seen that describe the presence of hand. Most tourists would see only the paint and miss what lies underneath.

Today I am finishing small useful objects to be shipped on Friday. Routing, sanding and the first coat of Danish oil. I also went to Bayyari Elementary School in Springdale, Arkansas to talk about being a how-to writer. The children were wonderfully behaved and respectful. They asked great questions. A photo of excited young writers after they'd been invited to come up and check out my work is shown above. I attempted to explain that there is a difference between how-to writers and normal writers of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. How-to writers provide pathways to actually change people's lives, enabling and encouraging them to make things of useful beauty. In the meantime, it seems writing is a thing no longer encouraged at the same level in schools. It is too hard to test for. The following is from Mom's Homeroom.
"Of course, not every school allows its teachers to skip what their students won't be tested on, but writing occupies a particularly precarious place in curriculum battles. No one would dispute that it's part of the core curriculum, but it's both time-consuming to teach and expensive to assess since you can't test it through computer-corrected, multiple-choice questions."
Bayyari Elementary School at least offers a summer writer's workshop to get students interested. I found the students to be excited about writing. I had also visited the school in May, 2011.

Make, fix and create...


  1. sounds like an interesting book. try the "culture of craft" edited by dormer for another good read on the subject, if you have not already. great blog, thanks.

  2. "I don't think philosophy alone can explain the elevation of painting and sculpture over crafts." -- you're sure right about that, Doug. It's what I call "the great re-framing" of the 17th and 18th centuries during which time art became reinvented as largely a commodity, separate, or separable, from necessity and specific place. (John Locke defined commodities as "movables valuable by money".) Aesthetic philosophy, whereby objects were considered for contemplation, not use or as common points of popular participation, reflected the socio-economic transformation of peoples' work.

    Big topic. Best book I know on this is Larry Shiner's, _The Invention of Art_

  3. I guess you're not supposed to touch fine art like sculpture or run your hands lightly over a canvas. Not if you don't want to be arrested.