Lessons from Skilled Work

Just in time for National Craft Month, I read an essay with the lovely title, “Metaphysical Implications of Function, Material, and Technique in Craft,”  by Howard Risatti*.  It’s in a 1998 exhibition catalog, Skilled Work: American Craft in the Renwick Gallery, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art.  It’s a long essay, 22 pages, so I can just skim the surface here, but it has helped me structure my thoughts on art and craft and their place in my life.

Real Life

First, Risatti points out that craft offers real experience, in contrast to “the contrived needs and pseudo-events that bombard us on TV and in the movies.”

In the postmodern world, so the argument goes, the natural hardly exists, and reality itself is always mediated in some way….Whatever remains of the “real” world is generally experienced secondhand, predigested via the media, TV, and the movies so that “real” life experience tends to be overwhelmed by lifestyle images….

Craft offers an important way to negotiate this predicament and return to experiences that are real – real because necessary, direct, and genuinely meaningful.  (p. 34)

Origins of Craft

Risatti explains that craft objects originated from naturally occurring objects that humans found useful.  He sorts these objects into three basic categories –  containers, shelters, and supports (such as seats and tables).  In other words, thousands of years ago when we saw a lake as a container for water, and realized we could create a more convenient version, we made sure that it met our other needs, by being an easy size to carry, an easy shape to set down, with a surface that was comfortable to touch, and so on.

Because craft is based on natural materials, it is constrained by the laws of physics, by what each particular material can do.

…materials are treated in ways that coax out the intrinsic properties of the material.  In a sense, this is a dialogue with nature conducted through technique and material. (p. 43)

Risatti tends to emphasize the impact of the artisan, but that phrase, “a dialogue with nature”, made me think more about nature’s strong contribution to new ideas.  I know when I notice something in nature like an interesting vine, I think, “you know what would be good to do with that…”


I made this basket about 30 years ago, with grapevines from here on the farm as the main frame.

basket detail

My favorite thing about it is the way the reed wraps around the grapevine at different angles.

Because each craft object has to be functional, it ends up following a basic pattern that is common across eras and cultures.  So a seat is a seat is a seat, and we can recognize its basic function whether it’s from King Tut’s tomb or a log cabin.

But craft is also called the “applied arts.”  It is human nature to express oneself somehow, within those constraints.  Techniques and traditions have built up within each craft, helping artisans bring out the intrinsic qualities of their materials.  These skills can build bridges across cultures.

warp-faced carrying bag

Natural, functional, and expressive.

Craft in Contrast with Fine Art and Mass-Production

Risatti then contrasts the functional nature of craft with the more intangible nature of the fine arts.

While physical needs do not change over the lifetime of an individual or over the course of centuries, psychic needs do change in reaction to altered social, political, and economic situations,  These changes are reflected in the fine arts.  (p. 35)

..the practitioners of the fine arts work to overcome the limitations of their materials, whereas those engaged in the applied arts work in concert with their materials.  (p. 38, emphasis his)

The fine artist is an ‘image’ maker, whereas the applied artist is an ‘object’ maker. (p. 40)

He also contrasts craft with modern mass-produced objects, which are created based on cheapness and machine efficiency, regardless of true functionality for humans.  Risatti gives the example of packing boxes, which are cheap to manufacture, ship, and store, but which are awkward for humans to grasp and hold.  People have come to view an individually made craft object as:

  …a quaint historical curiosity, an anachronism, while ‘real’ functional objects are engineered by designers…the value of all objects tends to be based on their perceived efficiency. (p.47)

And So Where Does This Leave Us?

This essay really helped me figure out where I am in the whole art/craft continuum, and the area I would like to focus on.

You may take issue with the way that Risatti defines and separates “art” from “craft”, (although I am greatly summarizing the essay, and he does go into it in much more depth) and I think for a lot of people,   the two blend seamlessly.  But after reading this I would put myself more on the craft side – I prefer handmade objects to mass-produced, and I enjoy spending some time and effort to make them.  I do feel that they give meaningful experiences to my life.  But I guess that modern value on efficiency has affected me too, because I like to make simple things with a useful purpose – I admire masterpieces, but I don’t have a desire to make them myself.

The aspect of craft that I value most is the way it provides a bridge to people in different times, cultures, and circumstances.  I can speak the same language as other craftspeople, and be inspired by their individual traits of expression.

warp pick-up in Peruvian bag

I know how the weaver did this! I couldn’t do it so skillfully, but I could figure out the steps involved.

When I look at a medieval weaving illustration and think, “I know what she is doing!”  I can feel that connection across the centuries.  When I read stories of sharing textile joy across cultures and language barriers, like this account by Verónica, I wish I could have been there too.

I am sure that any hobby or interest can be shared this way, but figuring out that this is my favorite aspect of craft – this bridge of sharing ideas and skills – helps me decide where to focus my time and effort.  I don’t have to have the best of all possible materials or equipment, because I am most interested in just sampling different techniques. I will always be willing to give an informal weaving or dyeing lesson, because passing on the skill is the part I like best!

I don’t often see essays on the value of art and craft – I got so many ideas from this one!  If you have any other good books or articles on a philosophy of art to suggest, please let me know.

* I just looked him up and he is professor emeritus of art, craft, and critical theory at Virginia Commonwealth University.