Arriving Late to the Fine Arts vs Crafts Debate


And perhaps it isn’t a debate. Perhaps it’s bigotry or snobbery or antipathy. I dunno. My field is English Studies where we have our own version of all this. Perhaps all disciplines do.

But my position as a relative outsider includes a lack of background reading on the division between “Fine Arts” and other kinds of art (aka Crafts?) which leads me to ask questions like: Why is it that the aesthetic education literature seems so careful to define its work in terms of “Fine Art” rather than “art” and in the process to exclude handicraft genres from the academic curricula aimed at accomplishing aesthetic and imaginative learning?
So far, in my limited explorations of the scholarship, I haven’t come across anyone explicitly arguing that crafts be excluded from aesthetic education curricula but the careful use of the term “Fine Arts” and the omission of handicraft/folk art kinds of examples is consistent. There’s a clear hierarchy here and the default terminology implies that the accepted wisdom assumes the “great works” to be studied would include paintings but not quilts. It’s as loud and clear as the use of “he” as a pronoun in the days before non-sexist language policies . . . or in the days afterward.
Is it really true that kids would learn *less* or less well by studying, say, pottery than sculpture?
Says who?
Maybe Friedrich Schiller, for one. According to Ralph Smith’s handy lit review in Eisner and Day’s Handbook of Research and Policy in Art Education, Schiller’s 18th century aesthetic philosophy specified that the Fine Arts offered the “immortal examples” of a culture’s heritage, and that by studying such Beauty humankind would “[make] his way to Freedom” (164).
I need not summarize the history of the idea that Beauty promotes morality, civilization, and so forth. We get all that. My question is simply why today we continue to claim that Fine Art is where such Beauty is exclusively (or at least primarily) to be found. Lots of Fine Art is not beautiful or Beautiful. Profound, compelling, provocative, but not an instantiation of Beauty–at least not in the way Schiller means here. Some works of [craft] do have this transcendent Beauty. When that occurs, some decide these works merit an extraordinary leap into Fine Art. And yet lots of mediocre work is done in the fields of Fine Art as well . . . there are novices everywhere. So why bother making the distinction at all, particularly with regard to art as an instrument of imaginative learning?
As Smith’s article continues, he summarizes the contributions of Herbert Read and John Dewey, both of whom broaden the range of what is considered relevant art for aesthetic education and emphasize an approach that favors experience over reverence (165-66). These perspectives continue to be valued and acknowledged by art educators, but the fundamental definition of art, particularly within pedagogies incorporating observation-of and response-to art, remains that of Fine Art.
I gather that the genres categorized as “crafts” as opposed to “Fine Art” are genres that produce “functional handicrafts,” which are by definition objects primarily intended to be instrumental rather than imaginative. Weavers produce cloth; needleworkers produce quilts and garments; potters produce vessels for food and drink, as do glassblowers; and so on. In that regard, crafts are artworks not primarily intended to spark or to express complex ideas and therefore such works are less well suited to aesthetic education curricula emphasizing aesthetic criticism, interpretation, and so forth.
And yet . . . of course as a material culture researcher I can’t leave it at that. All objects are embedded with lore, culture, meaning. All objects are worthy subjects of criticism (aesthetic and otherwise). Whether or not a hand-made vessel is intended to express the imagination of its artist, it does so. Granted, I’m the type who would also argue that mass-produced kitsch is worthy of such analysis. So where do we draw the line? I’ll concede the purpose of that line is to point us to works of art that are exceptional instances of human/humanistic endeavor, perhaps also of transcendent beauty, capable of inspiring us to be better people, awakening our imaginations to new possibilities.  In that regard, I would say the Precious Moment figurine is disqualified (though rhetorically and culturally fascinating); also disqualified would be latch-hook rug I created in fourth grade. But somewhere between that latch-hook rug and Henry Moore’s reclining figures lies all sorts of nonfunctional art/craft that is and is not worthy of further study.
I’m troubled by the idea that functional objects might not be considered aesthetically complex and imaginatively advanced. Is this an essentially western assumption? What of wabi sabi? What does it say about our humanistic capacities if we accept that our functional objects are, by definition, too “functional” to be [B]eautiful?  How might such a view limit our perception of other kinds of everyday objects–those found in nature, for example?
I realize such questions have been pursued by others over the years, hopefully with greater insights and more satisfying resolutions. But I must voice them here because otherwise I’m too distracted by my internal monologue to concentrate on the aesthetic education literature before me.
Image source: Grecian Urn by electricinca

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