Critique of a Critic: Rising to Garth Clark's Bait


Post #5 A Small Byte of Garth with a side of Michelangelo, A nod to Gericault, and for Dessert, Quentin Tarantino!

In his interview with (click link if you want to read this) Garth makes several good points right off the bat about how the American Craft Museum chose to rename itself the Museum of "Art" and Design.  He correctly points out that this choice represents a defeatism: by removing "craft" from its title and adding the word "Art", though most of its collection is Craft (I've not visited the museum, but will take him at his word on that).  And I agree that a value judgement seems inherent in this decision, that craft is perceived to exist on a lower rung of the Arts ladder.  And as Garth points out, this distinction goes all the way back to the genesis of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England's mid-nineteenth century, with classist feelings contributing to the need for including the word "Art" in the movement's title.  It may be academic, but I grant that it is also historically accurate.  More about the relationship of Art "emerging from" the world of craft later in post.

But he soon loses me with his penitentiary argument: craft "is the only community that gives the greatest kudos to those who escape" into the arts.  Again, this is slippery stuff, but the kudos he refers to are increases in cash and status.  I admit that this is true, but it is not craft that confers these rewards on the people who have escaped; it is the Art Establishment which chooses to recognize and promote these craftsmen to the perceived higher rank of artist .  And I might point out that there are also some serious financial rewards for the gallerist who can convince his or her customers and the general public that the escape from craft to art is complete.

He actually chuckles at the idea that if Craft was rewarded financially the way art is, you certainly wouldn't see crafters trying to jump ship into the Art world.  This may be true to some extent, but craft and art were not always so clearly defined and the legacy of that confusion remains with us today.  And a paragraph or two above that he specifically claims that "You don't see that in painting. You don't see that in film.  You don't see that in any other field."

Let me start with painting and try to build the argument of historical contexts' role in our modern confusion.  Today all of painting is popularly referred to as art.  I do understand the academic argument against this.  But Fine art painting came out of the traditional craft of painting.  Before the rennaissance, painting was viewed as a trade the way laying brick was a trade.   By the high rennaissance, reputations were growing and egos were playing a stronger role as money and power entered the equation.  If an upper middle class patron wanted a frescoe in the courtyard he might hire whoever he could afford, but when the pope wanted the ceiling of the sistine chapel painted, he got Michelangelo.  


 Michelangelo Digression: 

{Caveat:  I am intelligent and studious but make no claims as to perfect accuracy in my memory of Art History.  Most of what I am going to say comes from reading tourist guide books in Florence and Paris, two art history calsses I took in the early 90's, and books I have read from the library and no longer have in my posession.  I also searched wikipedia but research has always been my worst flaw --probably what kept me in the art department}

It is significant that Pope Julius II got Michelangelo to paint the chapel ceiling against the artist's will and outside his preferred medium of marble carving.  The pope was the wealthiest and most powerful man in the western world and he chose the man he thought most capable?  Many, including Michelangelo wondered why not the most popular, talented and expensive painter in Italy (Raphael?)  Was it just his personal taste?  Did he recognize some mirror of his own stubborn pride in Michelangelo's personality that made the pope long for power and control over him?  Or, was the pope just cheap?  As best as I can recall (Garth help me out if I misspeak) scholars seem to agree that all of these played a role in his decision.  The pope and his Artist (Michelangelo was employed by Julius and his heirs and the Medicci popes Leo and Clement for many decades on multiple projects, including a cast bronze equestrian statue in Northern Italy, several more major frescoes in the vatican many marble statues for the tomb of Julius,  more marble statues for the medici chapel in Florence, and in the discipline of architecture, overseeing the completion of St Peter's Basilica.)  Throughout this unparalleled career he was a dominant figure among art students (to the detriment of many) in his lifetime and remains one of the most complete and influential artists of the western canon.  But he always was short on cash, lived like a pauper, and worked ridiculous hours, He was spiritually passionate, ferociously controlling about his work, (keeping only a few laborers or at times none), quarried his own marble, forged his own tools, and had self esteem issues and a monumental ego to go with it.  In short, the greatest artist of all time (that is my subjective opinion), either by choice or by God's mysterious design, lived like a craftsman. 

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Back to the Point

In another of painting's finest historical period's (the Salon world of Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries) we see that the craft art debate becomes shoddy by some estimates, or at least changeable from a historical point of view.  For Instance the baroque or Rococo paintings [see Fraggonard's Lady on a Swing (?)] were all the rage and perhaps taken seriously by the art critics of the time, in the late 18th century.  Today's equivalent might be Thomas Kicade, "painter of light," (he actually holds a trademark on that descriptor).  But in the 19th century this style was completely supplanted by the more serious Neoclassicists (See Jaques Louis David's Death of Marat for an example).  The yearly salons of Paris grew in popularity over the 19th century until trying to view them became what I can only imagine must have been a nightmare.  Thousands of paintings filled the Salons rooms with both craft and what later became recognized as fine art paintings displayed side by side, with the alphabet being the only organizing principle.  Also the paintings were diplayed from floor to ceiling (30 ft off the ground), were poorly lit, and packed tightly together.  Sounds like a democratic but aesthetically unsatisfactory experience.

Let me cite one historical example of how a painter who wanted to be (and succeeced in my opinion) viewed as an artist dealt with the Salon dilemma.  Theodore Gericault was a romantic (?) painter who in my opinion built on the themes of noble humanity presented by the neoclassicists.  His Raft of the Medusa (his largest and most ambitious painting) takes as its subject the ragged group of survivors of a sunken ship who have been reduced to starvation and cannibalism at their moment of sighting deliverence by a passing ship.  This painting with its enormous size (it measured 16 by 23 feet! Pretty darned big for a oil painting on canvass) and its sensational subject matter strove to grab as much of the public attention as possible, and it was probably the most talked about painting of that year.  Its size really allowed Gericault to stand out in a chaotic Salon and impressed many of his painter brethren including the young Delacroix, who posed for one of the figures in the composition.

{related note:  as a potter, I find it to my strong advantage to bring a few very large pots to the craft fairs I attend because they grab the attention of the strolling customers and encourage them to look more carefully at my body of work.  The big pots seem to justify me in the minds of customers as a potter who might be more than just another face in the crowd.  This is essentially an advertising tactic: "Size Matters"}

From here lets move to the medium of contemporary film.  Quentin Tarantino is a director who grabs viewers' attention by making sensational films whose tremendous violence is playfully countered with witty dialogue, comic relief and even cliches.  Like Gericault's Raft, these films stand out and declare that here is a director who demands his work to be explored carefully by would be critics.  But with his first enormously successful film, Pulp Fiction, the critics were somewhat confused (every one is a critic)  Some called him a "genius" others an "artist" others a "provocative craftsmen" and still others a "hack";  I even once heard a critic making the argument that Tarantino was a "pornographer".  Like a true artist, I think Tarantino may have already won the war by making a piec of work that confounded and impressed so many.  That movie is at least 15 years old now and he has added many other movies, some of them perhaps better, others considerred less important, but he is generally taken seriously and thought of as an artist or at the very least a very challenging popular artist.  If he is a craftsman, he seems much more profound to me than James Cameron.  If he is an artist, he seems to make just as much bank as the craft filmakers of his time period (perhaps with the trgically notable exception of Cameron).  And compared with a true "Art" film maker like Warhol (I'm out of my depth here) he seems a lot more relevant, sincere, compelling and engaging.

Peace to all of you and thanks for reading.