Talk: Wrong end of the stick? The muddied waters between craft, design and fine art – what is the difference and does it matter?

Saturday 13 July 2019

Saturday morning brought the opening of a new exhibition in the barn at Messums Wiltshire, featuring New York’s Hudson Valley based Christopher Kurtz’s work, titled, ‘The Traveller cannot see North, but knows that the needle can’.

The exhibition opened up a conversation that has long been discussed: where are the boundaries between fine art; craft; design or should there be any such categorisation at all? We invited Grant Gibson, former editor of Crafts Magazine, Emma O’Kelley, Editor-at-Large of Wallpaper magazine, to talk alongside Christopher Kurtz and Messums Wiltshire curator Catherine Milner, to discuss the extent of cross collaboration between these disciplines.

Catherine Milner opened the discussion using a quote from Glenn Adamson, a leading US commentator on this topic, from his essay precursing this exhibition. ‘For all of its undoubted benefits, modern industrial life has also entailed many losses,’ going on to add that craft is one of the many things that has been lost, certainly in the education system in this country.

Throughout the talk there was a variation of opinion on why the boundaries between art and craft were perhaps muddied, some views more sceptical than others. Grant Gibson refers to a current phase, whereby craftsmen are entering into the fine art world in order to add a few more zeros to their price tags. Although it is inevitable to talk of craft as a dying trade, it was noted that we are seeing an increasing number of people in the sphere of fine art using a variation of materials, one only needs to look at Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal to see the trend.

Emma O’Kelley argued that this was an increasing movement, certainly not of temporary status, that looking at events such as the Milan Furniture Fair, craftsmen show their works as pieces of design or perhaps even art. Likewise at the Venice Biennale, artists and artisans alike are displaying their cross collaboration of works all together in the same context.

Christopher Kurtz spoke from personal experience, noting, “the distinctions have never really meant much to the artists themselves”. As much as fairs and exhibitions would like to categorise pieces, eventually for craftsmen such as himself, the motivations that bring him to create a chair or table, are the same to those that motivate him to create what would traditionally considered as ‘art’. For Kurtz, it is fairly black and white when it comes to classifying his work. Simply, good or bad, successful or not.

Christopher Kurtz fervently argued in defence of crafts not being a lost art. He spoke of his own story, first learning basic traits from building an extension on his family home during his childhood, then the early years of his career working in his basement with basic tools. “Speaking to young people, I would say, there is a huge appetite for being able to manipulate materials with your hands.” He asserted that despite what might seem the reduction of services for makers, there is something to be said for the rebellious streak that many artists possess. That not having the perfect facility might actually aid the development of a craftsman or artist, rather than hinder it.



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