Craft in the Expanded Field
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To describe craft as “art with utilitarian function” seems simple enough. But Kantian aesthetic philosophy, contemporary art historians, and even popular knowledge sources such as Wikipedia all reinforce the idea, as one notable art historian put it, that “art cannot be utilitarian.” More specifically, it is a lack of real-world utility that tells us to interpret an object or an image as art. How, then, do we negotiate that opposition? Rosalind Krauss, the historian who wrote “art cannot be utilitarian,” provides a template.
Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” acknowledged the pluralism inherent in the way the term sculpture had been stretched to describe a diverse set of artistic practices such as earthworks, architectural sculptures, and site-specific interventions. Her goal was to explain the different logics inherent within objects identified as sculpture in order to provide language for examining what were then newly emerging practices. By comparing various iterations of three-dimensional artistic practice and their relationships to landscape and architecture, her work opened up the high-modernist notion of sculpture.
Similarly, the term craft is being stretched today to accommodate a pluralism of meanings, from figurative clay sculpture to handcrafted, utilitarian bowls. Institutions, artists, exhibitions, and print media adopt and use the word to suit their needs without acknowledging the sometimes unrecognized shift in meaning from one context to the next. By foregrounding utility, or use value, instead of material choice as a central focus of the term craft, we can similarly expand the field, articulating and identifying the different positions that crafted objects occupy. Even if the term seems infinitely malleable, when used as an identifying label within an art-world context, a precise identification of craft as one term among many could help us navigate these differences.
The term social practice, sometimes identified as social sculpture, is a set of artistic actions oriented toward the community. The “social” is the form and content of the work. Like sculpture and craft, social practice is used in a pluralistic manner and stretches over a broad set of activities such as urban interventions, guerilla architecture, and street performance, each of which embodies different operational strategies. As with sculpture and craft, the term social practice is often misunderstood and ambiguously stretched. By interrogating the utilitarian qualities of social practice, we can articulate the sets of conditions that define it and describe the actions collected under its rubric. Foregrounding utility also will enable us to explore the affinities and sympathetic aesthetic propositions inherent in both craft and social practice.