Art, Craft, and Function

The introduction of totemism as a third term may also disrupt the binary model of art history that opposes an “age of images” to an “era of art,” or (even worse) opposes “Western” art to “the rest.’

—W. J. T. Mitchell. What Do Pictures Want?

Non-functional items from the third world are assigned pseudo-functional descriptions such as “fetish figure” when the same kind of item from the west will be given a name and creator.

—My post Serious Art

In the practice of art conservation we are used to thinking about what all the different agents of art – the artist, the curator, the public, etc. – would want for the object’s material condition.  Very rarely – if ever – do  we  consider that the object itself might want something.

Does Art Want to be Conserved? at Cantor Science

To-date, I’ve thought that the distinction between fine art and craft is one of presentation only. Fine Art is presented as being intellectual and having an equally-important creator. Craft is functional and the use is often more important than the creator. I haven’t thought of it as function of agency for the actual piece in question.

The Cantor Science blog turned me onto W. J. T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want. It has taken me a while to get through the book* and, while I can’t recommend it as a book,** there is a lot of stuff worth thinking about in there for people, like me, who consider themselves art appreciators.

*It’s interesting how, once having left school, book reports become something worth doing again.

**Good god, I’m glad to see that my skimming skills from college are still useful. I can no longer deal with 20 pages of throat-clearing followed by 2 pages of interesting stuff.

In particular, I’ve had to completely reconsider my position that the fine arts vs craft distinction in how we title western art versus third world craft somehow shortchanges the third world as being less important. The opposite is true. Unless we can articulate what fine art is supposed to be used for, it’s almost inherently less important. That so much western art is curated as being important because it’s by someone or part of a movement is a large reason why so many people don’t get art.

And they’re often right to not get it. Much of western/fine art has become an exercise in collecting specimens. The object, and all its uses, is no longer important. What matters is the artist.

The problem with this is that specimen-based curating requires museumgoers to understand the context for the art. Some museums try to explain this but most don’t. So the museum becomes an intimidating place for people who haven’t been taught any art history—no one likes to feel stupid.  And the art is shortchanged since it’s forced to exist in a vacuum.*

*I never liked Chuck Close until I saw a bunch of his work displayed together and could see what he was actually doing. I’ve had to explain Cindy Sherman’s work to numerous people. My favorite experience in an art museum is still hearing a kid point at the pile of Brillo Boxes and proclaim, “That’s not art!”—but there was no information in the museum to explain why it was.

This also explains why, in addition to my preference for design exhibitions, I find myself enjoying pre-renaissance art. The closer the artwork is to being useful, the more I find myself drawn to it.

Specimen-based curating is only acceptable in a retrospective where the artistic path of one person or movement is on display and anyone can see how the pieces fit together. Retrospectives are biographies and are committed to telling a story. The context for the pieces becomes obvious to any museumgoer.

What we need are more art exhibitions which work as both art and as craft. The art objects need to be treated as being important in their own right and not just as specimens without context. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the DeYoung Museum was a great example of this.* In addition to being an exhibition of functional objects, there was information about the different artists as well as background information on the quilting traditions. Yet, at the same time, this was very much an art exhibition, not a natural history exhibition.

*The Pixar exhibition in Oakland is another example which comes to mind—very much a craft-based exhibition, but it was also clearly about art.

Which brings us to the question of agency. It’s not really about what pictures want but more the understanding that we all relate to functional items at a much deeper level than we relate to a specimen. Specimens are purely intellectual. Functional items, whether a jewelry, furniture, totem, etc., engage us more and we relate to them better. With regard to display and conservation, we need to take this into account and treat art, if at all possible, in a way which allows people to appreciate its use and purpose. Usage, after all, is why most things are made to begin with.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

26 thoughts on “Art, Craft, and Function”

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