“A theory of craft” by Howard Risatti is in my opinion an inescapable book for anybody interested in Craft.
I will quote the foreword by Kenneth R Trapp (former Curator-in-Charge of the Renwick Gallery of The Smithsonian American Art Museum) to give an insight of the content of the book:
“Considering the lowly status craft holds vis-à-vis other visual arts, arguing that craft is art is a courageous undertaking. In A Theory of Craft, Howard Risatti presents a thoughtful and careful argument that this is, in fact, the case, that craft is art. He has been developing the arguments presented in this book for over two decades. As his thoughts about craft took form and became clearer, the author struggled to find the appropriate organizational structure to address such thorny dichotomous issues as “function versus non-function,” “craft versus design,” “the artist as intellectual versus the craftsperson as object maker,” and “artistic content versus physical object.” As the reader will see, each chapter is written to address a particular issue, with chapter building on chapter, to the conclusion that craft is art. Drawing liberally on his scholarly background in artistic theory, in particular as it pertains to Modern Art, aesthetic theory, and other philosophical discourse, as well as casting an acute eye to contemporary culture, Risatti challenges many of the long-held stereotypes about craft that hinder a true understanding of the art form. His conclusions challenge us to reevaluate our ideas not only about craft but also about what actually constitutes a work of art.”
This book is so dense that I will probably come back to it later on. But I will start with a chapter that has attracted my attention: TAXONOMY OF CRAFT BASED ON APPLIED FUNCTION (pages 29 to 40).
I must confess that I didn’t know what a taxonomy was. But it is rather simple as it is actually the practice and science of classification.
So does it mean that the author will try there to be as “scientific” as possible about a possible classification of craft? This prospect raised my interest as I have always found that one of the problems of craft is that it is so multifaceted that it is almost impossible to define or classify.
So what is he saying?
First he is trying to review different classifications to see which one is the most relevant.
The most obvious is the taxonomy based on material: ceramics, glass, wood, fibers, metal…H Risatti explains that they are logical groupings but they tell us little about the objects as they can usually be included in several categories (a bowl can be in glass, ceramics, metal, wood, fibers…).
He then goes for a technique-based classification: turning, blowing, throwing, weaving… But the same conclusion arises: it doesn’t say much about the object.
Another classification could be a form or morphological one: you have 3D forms as cuboids and spheroids and 2D forms as rectangular, circular or ovoid.
But Risatti argues that none of the above provides taxonomy based on unique characteristics and that most objects overlap several sets at the same time. And all of them are unsatisfactory as they all approach the object from the point of view of appearance. But to gain an understanding of the object, Risatti says that “we need to connect the object’s purpose for being made to its function and the processes and materials employed to make it capable of carrying out its function.[…] And, understanding more fully function in craft objects is essential to our main concern - craft’s possible status as art - because fine art aesthetic theory has made function a central issue in denying an object the status of art.” (p. 32)
I strongly agree with H Risatti about the fact that function is a central issue in craft and applied arts. But I won’t discuss the status of art of an object here. What interests me most in his discourse is the kind of taxonomy that arises from his theory.
“Approaching craft from the concept of applied function helps us solve the problem that form, material and technique, as separate yet historically essential features of craft, pose for the field. Function forces us to understand them, not as discrete components, but as a constellation of interrelated elements residing at the core of the craft object.[…] a taxonomy based on applied function provides a basic, unified approach to the field. From the vantage point of function, crafts objects come together into coherent groupings showing craft to be a field of shared concepts, rather than a loose grouping of objects without common ground or share norms bound together solely by historical tradition.” (p.32)
That sounds very promising to me.
So what would those applied functions be?
Risatti sees three main functions and an additional one relating to architecture (as he considers architecture as an applied art):
- Containers (such as bowls, jugs, vases, glasses, bottles, baskets, bags, boxes, trunks…)
- Covers (such as clothing, quilts, scarves, blankets…)
- Supports (such as beds, chairs, benches, tables, sofas...)
- Shelters (for architecture)
He has trouble trying to locate jewellery, tapestries, stained glass, mosaics and ceramic tiles and creates a hybrid concept of “adornment/decoration” that navigates loosely between craft and fine art. I am not particularly happy with his point about jewellery but I may come back to it in another article, as I don’t want to lose the trail of his demonstration of a possible classification based on applied function.
So instead of having an exhibition of ceramics, or wood or textiles, one can imagine a grouping around the function of containing for example. To contain means “to hold together, to hold in”. So what does a container do? Why do we need to contain? What are natural containers? Containing can be synonym of protection but can be associated with more negative ideas like restrain, control…What happen when a container doesn’t contain…
Those could be themes explored by some objects of the “containers” category.
And this is why this taxonomy based on applied function really interests me as it is one of the key element to understand the conceptual shift that occurred in what we can call “studio craft”. Risatti asks the question (that most people might ask themselves): “what is this contemporary craft object that is about function but does not actually function”? (p.285)
And his answer is really interesting: “Rather than an abandonment of the field, these non-functional Studio Craft objects are a contemporary exploration of craft’s particular sensibilities and concerns. Such works show that function need not be taken literally as it traditionally had been for an object to be identified as part of the craft field. Function can be abstract and metaphorical without the object necessarily loosing its identity because, even if abstract and metaphorical, function is still the subject matter of the work; it is still around function that the object springs forth into the viewer’s consciousness. This springing forth from function is an example of what it means for an object to be critical from within the field of craft”. (p.288)
To illustrate Risatti’s theory, I will use the work of Nicholas Rena, a ceramist artist I have recently discovered at the new Ceramics Galleries of the V&A. His work consists mainly of huge coloured vessels of architectural scale.
Here are some pictures from his website. One shows his vessels and the other one shows the artist in a workshop and gives an idea of the scale of his work.
Here is Rena’s artist statement:
“For those of us making a certain type of ceramic vessel, one of the central metaphors in such work, which is perhaps too obvious to state, is that these vessels are empty. It is a powerful metaphor - to produce a body of work about containment, which is intended to remain resolutely empty.
They are empty because they refer to traditions of use that are almost lost: ceremonies or rituals, involving vessels, which were performed in common, such as baptism, anointment, invocation, blessing...where man and the material world fused.
Perhaps these empty objects do have some function. In a world dematerialising into an anti-physical one of text and images, of speed and noise, they sit heavy, thick and still. Material trying to be as palpable as it can, reproaching a world going virtual”.
I couldn’t have found better example of what Risatti says in his book. This artist works with the applied function of containment but claims that his work is empty (so the function of containing is distorted) and the message lays specifically in this denial of the function: it acts as a metaphor for lost traditions (like ceremonies where vessels were used) and the dematerialisation of our society. Function remains the subject matter of the work but it becomes abstract and metaphorical.
One should keep in mind this taxonomy of craft based on applied function as it gives the opportunity to understand a craft object not only according to its appearance but also especially through its function which is paramount to the majority of studio craft works today.