Craft and Art in Postwar America


I have been involved in the visual arts as an academic and professional for more than 20 years. During that time, I have had or heard countless “art versus craft” debates. While my own opinions on the subject have changed over the years, so have the nature of these conversations. Nearly everyone, it seems, has recognized that the status of craft in our culture has changed dramatically. The growing success of craft galleries, mediums such as glass art, and craft schools—such as Pilchuck in Seattle or the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle—is undeniable.


At the turn of the century, we are witnessing a palpable shift in our visual culture that is placing greater emphasis on the physical qualities of art. Craftsmanship, in other words, is in. In the 1990s, a major surge in the prominence of glass art and related media occurred. Suddenly, craftsmanship was an extremely desirable quality in a work of art, and even contemporary artists such as Andy Goldsworthy sought to underscore how much effort went into making their art. Rather than offering a direct and unmediated channel to a painter’s genius, art began to exhibit a newfound respect for the viewer by putting hard work and skill on display.

Art in both America and Europe underwent a fundamental change after World War II. With the ascension of the United States as the world’s preeminent political and economic leader came a surprising level of cultural clout. Many artists, writers, and musicians fled to our shores, and thousands of Americans went to art school on the G.I. Bill. The United States was in favor and very much in fashion. Europe’s philosophies, erudition, and sophistication had crumbled under the rubble of genocide, jingoism, and war.

America’s artistic success had previously been defined by its ability to keep up with Europe—but that would no longer do. Somehow, American art would have to reinvent itself. The answer, it turned out, was the emergence of individual expression, rather than cultural intelligence, as the defining quality in great art—and the champion, of course, was Abstract Expressionism. Successful works of art became the result of artists struggling to express themselves through their chosen medium. Unmediated self-expression became the new name of the game, and it not only dovetailed with the American ideals of freedom of speech and thought, but it was also a convenient way to shuck the oppressive traditions and influence of European art. Jackson Pollock, for example, suddenly found not only that his work was celebrated, but that he had become a major celebrity.

It was in this historical context that the American Craft movement developed during the late 1940s and 1950s. The public recognized that ceramic artists such as Peter Voulkos could achieve the same artistic goals as painters. Working with wood, fiber, and clay felt elemental to these artists, and many abandoned their canvases and began to carve, weave, and fire their art. The immediacy of the material and its tactile and fiery processes was irresistible, and artists began to use craftsmanship to achieve the goals of Abstract Expressionism.

Yet Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism had introduced a new problem into the visual arts: Was the painting complete and meaningful by itself, or was it only important as evidence of the artist’s process? Was it the path or the footprint? The status of the art object in America has been tossing on a turbulent sea ever since. It was in the 1960s that the superior status of painting began to come under fire from within: Minimalism attacked painting as a medium of fiction and lies; conceptual art distained the fetishized object; and installation art set out to defy artistic commercialism. When painting prices soared through the roof in the late 1980s, the backlash was strong enough to make the market blink—and it did. Prices dropped. Fortunes were ruined. Collectors were crushed and embarrassed. Even though a few artists, such as Andy Warhol, had been able to create insightful art about the marketplace, the marketplace, it seemed, had not learned that much about art.

Since the late 1980s, the art world has changed. Collectors and dealers are more cautious. There is less of a rush to get it done, get it into a gallery, and get it sold. The artistic process is slower and more thoughtful, and there is a new emphasis on design and craftsmanship. Skill is celebrated, but not with the dramatic bravado of grand-scale postwar paintings. The public has discovered a new appreciation for dedication and focus in art. Raw talent, it seems, still has to be proven.

Architecture and design were American strengths in the first half of the 20th century, and this legacy surely contributed to the rising status of craft in our country. Gustave Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright seem to be only growing in popularity and respect. And what contemporary American artist is more famous than Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry? It’s telling that the answer might just be the glass artist Dale Chihuly.

But how do we tell the difference between art and craft? Is there a difference? Certainly, the old high-walled boundaries between art and craft have been toppled: more and more great art made out of glass, clay, fiber, and wood is on display in the finest art galleries and museums. Which raises one final question: Is the “art versus craft” debate about artistic intentions or public perception? Culture—alive and ever shifting—is our shared human experience, and there is no art without culture.

I say the more art, the better, but the answer is really up to all of us.

A Waterville native and Bowdoin graduate, Daniel Kany is an art historian, writer, and curator. After spending 18 years in New York and Seattle, he returned to Maine to open the Daniel Kany Gallery in 2006. The Portland Gallery specializes in contemporary glass, painting, and sculpture from around the world.

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