Art Term Tuesday: Craft Art

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

What is “real” art? Or, for that matter, what makes a “real” artist? For hundreds of years, real, or fine, art was defined as sculptures and paintings (which in itself had its own hierarchy imposed by art academies). All other forms of creative expression were viewed as less-than, and this brings us to our term for today: Craft Art.

When we talk about craft art, we’re not addressing arts and crafts like children make at camp; rather, it’s a form of making or creating that produces a functional object. Craft art serves a purpose: you can wear it or drink from it. Essentially, if the resulting object has a domestic function, it isn’t considered fine art. Historically, this meant that weavers, sewers, potters, and glassmakers weren’t viewed as artists; they were craftsmen. More often than not, they were women. Women were the predominant makers of domestic crafts (which we’ll refer to as craft art), reinforcing the wares’ status of less-than, as women were viewed as second-class citizens. This is especially true for the fiber arts (sewing, weaving, knitting, etc.), and they were deemed merely utilitarian.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that these crafted works began to be considered “true art”. This can be attributed to William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement in England. For followers of his aesthetic, they held the belief that, while objects may be utilitarian in nature, they can also be beautiful and, therefore, artistic. This can be most recognized in his wallpaper patterns, which are still produced today.

In our first example from the FWMoA collection, we can see how traditionally domestic, womanly wares are in fact works of art. FWMoA has a large collection of Amish quilts, all of which were meticulously and lovingly crafted. Take Lydia Eash’s Hole in the Barn Door – Cross quilt, which she crafted in 1903. We can see in both the larger and detailed image the perfection of Eash’s stitches; we can’t deny how fine an artist she was. Quilts like this also serve a community purpose, not only for Amish women, but all the communities where women work together on projects such as this. These groups of women working are known as “sewing bees” or “quilting bees”; and it was how women bonded, not only with their friends, but across generations. This allowed for skills to be passed down generation to generation and, in some communities, as with the Amish, these traditions continue.

The twentieth century saw the boundaries of fine art and its definition continue to blur, moving past utilitarian wares into pure aesthetics. The Bauhaus school welcomed and encouraged experimentation with craft in their art, and the 1960s introduced the Studio Glass movement that moved glassware from purely functional to fine art. With the exponential growth of the Feminist movement in the 1970s, fiber arts began to enter the mainstream. As women fought for equal rights and representation, feminist artists began bringing traditionally female skills into the fine art realm. In order to show how these skills, like weaving and sewing, were in fact fine art, artists like Liz Whitney Quisgard removed the domestic-centric, functional purpose in their artwork, introducing a purely aesthetic design. We can see this in her wall hanging, Lots of Circles. In this work, Quisgard has sewn and woven yarn and needlework onto buckram circles, which are then arranged on the wall. These circles have no functional use, such as Eash’s quilt, but are instead created to dazzle the eye.

Liz Whitney Quisgard, American, b. 1929. Lots of Circles. Needlework and yarn on buckram, 2017. Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2019.112.1-32. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Quisgard is just one of many contemporary artists seeking to bring craft artwork into the domain of traditional fine mediums. As such, our definition of what constitutes “real” art continually changes, and it will likely never be stable, as new creations and creators push the boundaries of the fine art world.

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