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A Trip to A Craft Show, To Find Art

by Alexandra Holness

Here at The Muse Dialogue we are constantly seeking to define this mysterious concept called “art”. That is, we are struggling to understand what draws the line between art and, well, everything else – and what draws the line between an artist and, well, everyone else. As our discussions have evolved, my mind keeps revisiting that mêlée between art and craft. In my experience, I’ve noticed a general reluctance toward titling crafters as “artists”. There seems to be a bit of a stigma attached to being a crafter as opposed to an artist. So I wonder: why is an inherently artistic practice not quite granted the honorable title of “art”?

One of a Kind Toronto (Photo: OOAK Toronto (c))

One of a Kind Toronto (Photo: OOAK Toronto ©)

The distinction we make between art and craft typically has to do with the presence of utility. Craft tends to serve some sort of utilitarian purpose, whereas art simply exists for art’s sake. That difference seems to lead to a subordination of craft. Coupled to that, crafting also comes off as an apparently inferior practice because it often has economic objectives and tends to limit artistic freedom through its prescribed techniques. So, as it seems, if a piece of art serves some utilitarian purpose or is designed primarily to reap financial profits, it no longer quite deserves that coveted “art” title. This bothers me.

One of my favorite arts events each year is the One of a Kind Show in Toronto, Canada. Essentially it is the largest consumer craft show in North America, drawing in over 200,000 people annually and featuring around 800 artisans. It’s quite the spectacle. Just about everything sold is hand made and one of a kind. While we debate whether or not the final product is “art,” I can’t help but think that it certainly took an artist to make it. What I love about this show is that it brings together painters, couturiers, jewelers, toymakers, chefs, you name it – all under one roof. And, make no mistake, every vendor shares one common purpose: to sell.

The result is quite an epic battle of the arts. There are no curators, no docents, no audio guides or playbills; there is nothing instructing the consumer’s taste. It is just a clean fight to provide the new masterpiece of the customers’ living rooms. Well, perhaps it’s not entirely a “clean fight.” My half-sister has sold her work at the fair for years, and I’ve had the unique pleasure of peaking behind the scenes at some of the politics running this circus of sorts. It is usually a circus in the best sense of the word – abundant sights and sounds, lively crowds, a festive atmosphere – but then you also have the other side of the coin. My backstage access, so to speak, has made me privy to more than a few cases of artistic plagiarism, blacklisting, and all other sorts of foul play. Many of the sellers will stop at nothing for your dollar, and it can seem that “art for art’s sake” soon becomes irrelevant when dollars are on the table. With all sorts of hidden agendas floating around, and with many trying to make a living at shows like this, you have to wonder if we can no longer call it “art” because it is being sold.

Who most often wins this battle for sales each year? Is it the “crafters” because their products are practical and useful? Or is it the “artists” because their products were not motivated by notions of commercialization? As it turns out, consumers gravitate toward the most artistically unique pieces presented. Their dollars go to those products that stirred inside them that visceral reaction that occurs when one looks at great art, or at least something that is distinct. That final decision to buy has little to do with the piece’s useful purpose or with any financial motives that its creator might have had. No, at the end of the day it is still the artistic ingenuity behind a piece that carries the day.

We should abandon the debate over the hierarchies between art and craft. Craft is art and a crafter is an artist. The artwork may have a useful function and a financial motive, but ultimately these facts do not say whether or not something is art. They are only biases that prevent us from seeing what is there, and if it’s art, we will know it when we see it.


Links of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“The Allure of Liquid Fire: A Look at the Art and Craft of Glassblowing” by Kelly Englert

“Finding the Beautiful Before Us: When Craft Becomes Art” by Andrew Swensen

“Artists, Craftsmen…and the Craft of Art” by Erin Yanacek

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