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Art or craft?


It’s a fact that there are not many colleges offering full time ceramic courses or degrees these days. I had assumed it was a funding issue, but there is another problem here. Sometime ago I asked a fine artist why her college didn’t offer ceramics and she said “It’s because ceramics is a craft”. I was a bit taken back by this but apparently this is not a new point of discussion.

At a basic level, becoming a ceramic artist certainly involves acquiring the skills of a potter – throwing perfect vessels on a wheel, mixing glazes, understanding clay and so on. Beyond that, ceramics is just a medium for artists to express themselves, in the same way as stone is to a sculptor. Stonemasonry is undoubtedly a craft, but that does not make Michelangelo’s David or Henry Moore’s stone sculptures just a skilled bit of stonework. It drives me mad to be honest. All this got me thinking more about the status of modern art derived from “crafts” (such as ceramics or stone work). Earlier this year I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Anyone lucky enough to have been will know that it is stuffed full of breathtaking treasures from every corner of the world. It represents paintings from the great masters, exquisite textiles, metal work and ceramics. If you camped there for a week you couldn’t take it all in. Certainly much of the 3D work is derived from “crafts”, but here they are celebrated in a world class museum of “art”. Now, if you head down the road a few blocks to the Museum of Modern Art the only “art” represented here is paintings, moving images, photographs and a tiny smattering of sculptures. It seems modern art has become flat. At what point did this happen? There is another obvious trend as well. If you walk round the Met, the overwhelming majority of the pieces are beautiful – utterly and breathtakingly clever and beautiful. All these treasures come from times when craftsmen were appreciated, if not revered. Walk around MoMA and not only is everything flat, but very little of what is there is beautiful. Interesting? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Beautiful? Virtually nothing. When did beautiful get so uncool? Are we are living in a time where art needs to be ugly or jarring or difficult to understand to be valid? It made me wonder how our century will be represented in the Met in 200 years’ time. Will the visitors be asking “where did all the beautiful things go?”


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