Craft vs. Art

by Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer

This article has arisen from the Alberta Craft Council exhibition, Craft vs. Art: The Great Debate. The exhibition consisted of work and writings by Alberta Craft Council members. It was on display throughout August, 2002 in the Alberta Craft Gallery.

When I was asked to submit work for consideration for the Alberta Craft Council exhibition, Craft vs. Art: The Great Debate, my first thought was, "Why are we having this discussion?" I struggled to write a coherent essay and I made two surprising pieces as a part of my submission. In the end it proved to be a stimulating assignment.

I chose to focus on the power struggle that exists between art and craft. I discussed the differences between competition and differentiation and called for greater curiosity. Others approached the topic differently, but in the end, there was a high level of consistency among the submissions.

I think there is an elitist view on the part of both art and craft people that suggests a failure to be curious about differing perspectives. Identifying with a single view is limiting. Most often we hold negative judgments of other points of view when we cling too tightly to our own. When we feel the need to defend our position, we most often diminish others in the process.

The notion of a continuum more accurately reflects the reality. I do see crafts people who work at preserving a traditional form using only historically appropriate techniques, tools and materials. I also see artists who produce work with little regard for tradition or craftsmanship. There is value in honing one's skill just as there is value in carefree experimentation without regard to quality or longevity.

Mostly I encounter artisans who invest themselves in developing their skills and pushing beyond the status quo, always asking, "what if?" In this daring realm there is much to be learned. Media and form have little to do with the potential for learning and self-discovery.

The essence of my work resides in my personal learning. The product is less important than the process. My work is an act of self-definition. I hold an intention to do what Eric Maisel refers to as "deep" work. It is through the daily practice of my work that I achieve the deep learning or understanding I seek.

I notice that I am quick to judge the work of others when I am not curious about their intention. But when I pause long enough to be curious, I am often moved by what I see. I feel a resonance with people whose work is very different than my own when I am able to see that we are more similar than different.

I know that by choosing to work with fabrics, that I will not be universally recognized as an "artist". I also know that by pushing the edges of traditional textile work I will not be universally accepted as a quilter. If recognition or acceptance is what I am seeking, then I have set myself up for failure and a pretty unhappy life. But if my goal is to learn about myself through the creative process, I cannot fail. If I assume that others are trying to do the same, then I can be generous and curious about them and their work.

I want to hold on to the "Big Picture" where I can acknowledge the perspectives of others and be curious about them. I want to hold an intention to learn about myself, to test my own limits.

If we are able to view craft and art as a part of a continuum, and if we can allow self-placement on the continuum, then we will take ourselves out of the power struggle. Staying curious will automatically create opportunities for learning and for resonance with others. It will not matter if we are artists or craftsmen. After all, our creativity comes from the same source, doesn't it?

Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer
Mary is an artist and creativity coach specializing in work with textile artists.

reprinted by permission