My daughter goes to an art school in California called CCA, which stands for California College of the Arts. It used to be called the College of Arts and Crafts, but the crafty part got dropped some years ago. She recently asked me why.
I replied that I thought it might stem from the fact that artists who work in certain materials have, for decades, usually had trouble being taken seriously as fine artists. Glassblowers, ceramicists, textile workers, furniture makers and, until a few decades ago, photographers were all not usually welcome in fine art galleries or the museums that show fine art… unless it was a show dedicated to only ceramics, for example.
There were exceptions, but until quite recently those were rare. If we ignore Duchamp, whose work implied that anything could be art if he said it was, the restrictions have held firm, though photography broke the barrier first in a big way.
Photography was allowed in during the late ’70s and ’80s — Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Richard Prince, and soon the whole Düsseldorf school of Becher students, broke the embargo by generally showing large prints that were about ideas or even performance rather than being about the craft of the print. Part of their choice to use photography as a medium was a reaction to the large, messy, “bad” painting works, mostly by men, that were prevalent at the time — Schnabel, Salle, Baselitz, etc. These new photo-based works were shown as fine art — not primarily as photography. Things were so restrictive that for decades, color photography was not even accepted as fine art photography. I think this was because color photography was traditionally associated with drugstore prints, family snapshots and with advertising. In addition, it was almost impossible for a color photographer to handcraft a print in the same way B&W photographers did — to do so meant using the very expensive dye transfer technique, and even then the available scale was limited. Bill Eggleston had his film developed at the drugstore — though he went with high-end dye transfer for his prints. This relative absence of the artist’s “hand” was troublesome for some folks.
In my opinion it was an earlier generation — Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Douglas Huebler, Smithson, Oppenheim, Baldessari and others in the US; and the Bechers, Katharina Sieverding, Bas Jan Ader (below, his photo: “I’m too sad to tell you”),
Jan Dibbets and other “conceptual” artists in Europe — who in the late ’60s and early ’70s established that photos were a medium that could be used and accepted as fine art, and one did not have to be a skilled craftsperson in the art of photography or in printing to successfully communicate in that way. The photography was in service to something else — an idea, emotion or concept.
Granted, almost none of these folks worked in photography exclusively, so there was no immediate danger of them being called a “mere” photographer.
They were saying, in effect, that you didn’t have to be a good photographer to use photography as an art medium. You could even have someone else take the photo. You didn’t have to have skills or craft, not in the traditional sense, to make serious work. It’s similar to a punk rock DIY attitude — that anyone can make a great song, and if you can only play two chords, well, it can still be great. This news was pretty upsetting to a lot of people, and apparently still is. Get over it. A song is not better because it has more chords, and it certainly isn’t better because I labored over it longer — odds are, that extra labor might mean it’s simply overworked.
Some of the aforementioned artists eventually began to command high prices for their photo-based work that were WAY above what traditionally skilled photographers were getting. There was some serious jealousy and head scratching. I heard that both Avedon and Mapplethorpe couldn’t quite figure out why their work didn’t qualify — why these “bad” photographers’ work was selling for more than their own.
The attitude towards photography is slightly different than towards other crafts, but there is some definite overlap in the way photography was viewed with the way other crafty mediums are considered. My daughter was having a conversation with a well-respected fine artist not too long ago, and when my daughter said she was loving glassblowing and such, the response was a snarky remark and a sneer. Some fine artists, like Kiki Smith, can use blown glass in their work, and Sterling Ruby can show funky ceramics, but a full-on glassblower or ceramicist has a hard time being accepted in their world.
Ken Price has made weird, modest-sized ceramic pieces his whole life, but it seems he is only now getting a begrudging reception from the art world.
Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter who won the Turner Prize a few years ago, was quoted as saying, “It’s about time a transvestite potter got this prize!” He also said that it was even more significant that a potter got the prize than a transvestite. He’s right.
Part of this snobbish attitude goes back to the Renaissance. In order for painters to separate themselves from the various craft guilds, and establish their own worth, they had to form the idea that expression, concept and idea were worth at least (and maybe more, in their opinion) as much as skilled craftsmanship. They had to convince patrons that their work was valuable enough that they should no longer be paid by the hour. So, when crafts people sometimes make a stealth foray into the art world, they’re often rebuffed.
Decorative arts have also always been considered vapid, at least by the fine arts crowd. From their point of view, that work is just about pleasing the eye — looking good as background, without meaning or consequence. It’s a valid point, but there are exceptions, and there is plenty of fine art, especially with the booming market, that is clearly made to sell, to attract buyers.
The biggest exception to the “merely eye candy” view is in the traditional arts of Japan and China. A raku fired dish or tea bowl, out of the Zen Buddhist tradition, or the simple objects employed in tea ceremony, all had huge conceptual and philosophical meaning. Though they maintained their status as functional objects, they also made the statement that there is beauty in the mundane, humble and even the accidental. (Often the coloring that resulted from this raku glaze technique was partly random.) They were far from being just nice looking; if anything, they were plain, even ugly, to some eyes. So, though being, in our view, part of the craft tradition, they often aren’t about virtuoso skills and fine detail work. They embodied a way of looking at the world, as the best fine art does.
In Japan part of this aesthetic is referred to as wabi-sabi — which, loosely translated, means, “imperfect, transient, incomplete, modest and asymmetrical.” These ideas are very different from the ideals embodied in Western craft and decorative arts. In the East these craftsperson artisans are viewed in somewhat the same way the West views fine artists — as provocateur philosophers and visionaries. So the split might be largely cultural.
This schism between art and craft creates problems in art schools like CCA. There are some students who are there to learn a skill, a craft, and feel that the work in their field should be judged by how well it is made. Some teachers feel the same. A sloppily executed great idea is not good enough, in their opinion. These folks would presumably prefer jazz or classical over alt rock or hip-hop.
However, it’s risky for a teacher to criticize an idea — it may be killing something amazing before it has a chance to grow and mature. But most would agree that there isn’t much wrong with learning basic skills in whatever medium one chooses; one can, I hope, always abandon or pervert those skills later on, and one doesn’t need to be a virtuoso. Even punk rock songwriters hewed to a form — their playing skills may have been minimal, but their writing, and sometimes performance, can be top notch.
Other students feel that the idea should be privileged — that, to them, a beautifully made piece, with no innovative idea behind it, is merely empty, vapid.
I’m exaggerating — these opposing views are the extremes — but it’s not far off. How should the school compromise? I’d suggest that students be expected to show a certain level of skill — maybe in a variety of mediums — and that if they want to go further, as far as developing their skills in one medium, they continue to graduate school — or maybe, better yet, apprentice themselves to the established, successful crafts artists in their field. Very Renaissance, again.