01-08-2007 - Traces, n. 8

NewWorld - ART  Feigning the truth

Contemporary Art:
Studio Craft and Beyond

edited by Suzanne Tanzi

The Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples in Rimini, Italy, recently hosted a panel entitled, “Feigning the Truth: Issues in Contemporary Art,”  dedicated to exploring more deeply the contribution of art to our everyday lives. Curator Jane Milosch–who specializes in 20th century and contemporary American art made in craft media (such as clay, glass, fiber, and metal)–spoke about the relationship between contemporary art and its viewers. The following text is based on notes from her presentation

One of the primary roles of a public art museum is to educate people about what constitutes a great work of art, about why museums collect and exhibit certain works. We have an obligation to place contemporary art within a greater art-historical context and within the context of today.
Contemporary art presents a great challenge since it is being made now, and has yet to stand the test of time. It is all the more critical to create different “entry points” for museum visitors to appreciate the work of living artists.
Many people have a strong preconception about what they think contemporary art is. Strangely, some are often waiting to be alienated, and hence find it easier to discount what they do not like. I always encourage people to really look at the work and to let it have an impact on them. Great art often throws us off balance, and presents things in a way that is not black and white. Art lives in the gray, and that is exactly part of its attraction; it cannot be pinned down. It is the mystery of a work that draws us back to it, again and again.
During the 1970s, while some American artists were experimenting with process and minimalist forms, another group of artists was making everyday objects (such as vessels, furniture, and jewelry), but not always with a functional end in mind. This group of artists became known as the Studio Craft Movement–artists trained as craftsmen as well.
These craft artists have a great reverence for process and skill. They are drawn to working in clay, glass, fiber, wood, and metal by the expressive potential of the material. Their ideas and designs are born within their respective material.
One of the most well-known craft artists who emerged from this movement is Dale Chihuly, a glass artist, who has worked with master glassblowers in Murano, Italy, as well as with contemporary American sculptors. These people became “Studio Craft” artists (trained in art and as master craftsmen) out of a passion for the inherent potential of their chosen material. They embraced both the history of art and the decorative arts tradition.
The work of these and other craft artists can be immediately appreciated for its technical virtuosity and the sheer beauty of the material. This allows almost everyone an entry point.
Their craft works defy categorization as either decorative art or fine art–they exist in both worlds. This is part of their power; the work cannot be totally pinned down to one artistic tradition. In some ways, this work can be compared to Gershwin’s music, which looked to both folk and classical traditions for inspiration in creating classical music.
Luigi Giussani’s book, The Religious Sense, has had a profound effect on my understanding of the power and nature of craft. As I searched for words to explain the merits of the contemporary craft work I have been privileged to study and come to know, I found myself drawn to Giussani’s observations about beauty, the physical world, community, and how to be open to seeing and experiencing the world in its totality. Working in craft is working toward something undefined but revealing itself–so you have to be really present to the physical material, the work in process, your vision, and the reality that the medium ultimately presents (for examples, paper shrinks, clay morphs, glass breaks…). The communal aspect of this process is particularly important, as craftsmen learn from each other–through workshops and guilds and through following the masters–and in “community” with the material and process itself,  as they flesh out their ideas and experience of creating. In short, as Giussani teaches us, I think the key to contemporary art is to learn to not be afraid of anything in the companionship with another, whether this be the mystery of the medium or the mystery of fellow artists–one’s freedom does not risk creative high jacking in its exploration if it is open to another.