Visual Arts

Art vs. Craft in Today’s Museums and Galleries

Aug 19, 2015 at 10:31 am
click to enlarge “Untitled,” 1981, Peter Voulkos (1924–2002),  United States, stoneware
“Untitled,” 1981, Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), United States, stoneware


he theme for CityBeat’s Fall Arts Preview is “Arts & Craft. But maybe it should be “Art vs. Craft,” because not only are the two different, but there is tension — hostility, even — between the two, especially with the emergence of Modern and Contemporary art in the late 19th and early 20th century.

As the definition of what constitutes art expands to include all manner of materials and time- and movement-based fields of practice, those with traditional beliefs that equate good art with good craftsmanship are feeling left behind.

For an example, visit an unusual object on display for the next year in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s new Nancy and David Wolf Gallery, which is devoted to their Contemporary Craft collection.

It is the late Peter Voulkos’ visionary 1981 “Untitled,” a work of earthen-colored, white-stained gouged stoneware that looks like … what? An isolated fragment of a cave drawing? A remnant of a crushed skull? Something recovered from the volcanic ash of Pompeii? A flattened wheel?

The piece bears just enough resemblance to a plate or dish or bowl — to something that has the functionality we traditionally thought crucial in determining the worth of craft — to confuse many.

Some may find it perplexing or not conventionally pretty. But it embodies the metamorphosis of what was considered a craft — i.e. ceramics — into Contemporary art.

“He was an incredibly seminal figure in the modern ceramics movement for breaking the barrier,” says Amy Dehan, the museum’s decorative arts and design curator. “He broke the ties with the past — ceramics were small and delicate in scale, functional. He was incredibly influenced by the Abstract Expressionists [painters]. And he started to think of his art as being about the act of creating it and the idea of it, not the final object.”

While one sees this Art vs. Craft tension in all fields, painting especially has been a battleground. Ken Johnson, a New York Times art critic, addressed the subject earlier this year in a positive review of a show of paintings by Richard Estes, the Super- or Hyperrealist painter known for the shop-window reflections of his cityscapes.

“Painting used to be as much a craft as an art,” Johnson wrote, by way of explaining why Representational Realist painting isn’t highly regarded in today’s art world. “That began to change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as artists like van Gogh, Picasso and countless others shifted the focus from technical virtuosity to the expression of individual sensibility and intellect. Bravura skills with the brush…became anathema for the early Modernists.”

I remember a discussion at the Cincinnati Art Museum where a visitor told a guest speaker that Mark Rothko’s gorgeous example of Non-Objective Color Field painting, “Brown Orange Blue and Maroon,” showed a decline in skill compared to Botticelli. The complainant meant Rothko didn’t show he could paint “realistically” as was done in the Renaissance.

“Craft is often put in opposition to other things — to something conceptual or something that seems ‘poorly made’ regardless of the intent,” says Matt Distel, exhibitions director at The Carnegie as well as an adviser on contemporary projects to the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“There are a lot of historical and contemporary methods of making art that use an intentional or otherwise reduced skill level to make a certain point, such as Art Brut,” Distel explains.

“As a curator, I’ve always been interested in the ideas inherent in the objects as opposed to the actual technical virtuosity of the thing being made. But it’s on a sliding scale. It is tricky — I guess it speaks to issues of Modernity and contemporary thought.” (This is not to say, Distel stresses, that there isn’t skill and planning —elements of a type of craftsmanship — in the way Contemporary painters use color, apply paint and prepare their canvases.)

“Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” by Raphael, circa 1505–6, oil on canvas transferred from panel - Photo: Galleria Borghese, Rome, inv. 371, courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum

How has artistic thought changed over the centuries? Starting Oct. 3 and continuing through Jan. 3 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, you can see what was once the pinnacle of craft and art in Raphael’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn.” It will be making its U.S. debut at the museum, on loan from Rome’s Galleria Borghese. This is a work of the High Renaissance.

Besides the use of perspective, there are the wise, careful uses of color and line to reveal the calm curiosity on the subject’s face. She is carefully depicted as the center of her world, and the painting exudes enlightenment and a belief in humanity. And while the small, mythical unicorn she holds isn’t “real” (it supposedly was a symbol of chastity), it draws us in with the seeming accuracy of its depiction.

And yet, can you imagine if someone painted this today? It would either be meant as irony, a decoration for a child’s bedroom or commercial kitsch on the order of Thomas Kinkade.

There are plenty of artists working today who believe Representational painting seems anachronistic to attempt in the age of photography. Some go further and say that painting is dead, period, as meaningful art.

But there will always be dissent. Kevin Muente, an art professor at Northern Kentucky University and a dedicated Representational painter, has created painstakingly crafted works of people outdoors — hunters, for instance, or a bare-chested man holding what could be an ill or dead dog — that aim for a psychological edge to mark them as Contemporary.

He often uses photographs of models to prepare for his paintings. But that neither makes the actual painting redundant as art or solely an exercise in craft. “As a Representational painter, I find I want my paintings to look a certain way — steered by the way I perceive things in the world,” he says. “I love cinema, and that has characters creating narratives and some sort of plot. For me, if I want to do that and paint human beings, I want to be sure a nose is in right spot and that it doesn’t detract from telling a story.”

The end result, he says, communicates “a sense something has been labored over. There’s a sincerity in the thought and time that has been vested in the image.”

And, to him, that’s a timeless definition of art. ©