No, no, breathe a sigh of relief. I’m not going to get into the perpetual debate over whether a well-made (insert name of functional object here) is art or craft. Instead, I’m talking about a presentation at my guild last night, by Consuelo Jiminez Underwood, a woman who very definitely does fiber art, as in nonfunctional object designed to convey a message. Hers are all to do with the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in all senses of the term (cultural, physical, financial).
I am frankly fascinated by this. I have never understood this particular branch of art – outside of my writings, my primary ambition in creative work is to come up with an aesthetic object, possibly with interesting symbolism, but not really intended to convey an emotional state so much as to convey the beauty of the universe. So the idea of art as a political statement has always been a bit of a puzzlement to me. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the concept – it makes intellectual sense at least – but it’s definitely not within my own personal creative realm. To me, the whisper of Kipling’s devil is “It’s interesting, but what can you do with it?”
(For those unfamiliar, Kipling’s poem Conundrum of the Workshops – often and famously quoted – has a first stanza that goes like this:
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it art?”
To some people, the question of art vs. craft has relevance. It’s never mattered to me, because I don’t particularly care what someone else thinks about my sophistication (I’ll cheerfully admit to being unsophisticated, if you care enough to classify me). To me, it’s always been about utility. If it’s useful to someone, it’s worthwhile. I think that, to the artist, art is useful insofar as it allows him or her to express that which is inside (that much is obvious); but what about the viewer? When is art useful to the viewer?
I would say that it’s useful when it conveys something interesting, either in a conceptual statement or in an aesthetic sense. But there is also a second sense of useful, in that it’s something of practical use in the day to day. Here I’m not talking specifically about utility in the way a chair is useful; but utility in the sense of something you’d want to use, to live with, to keep as a reminder. I recognize the value of Consuelo’s art, in a place like a museum; it’s a statement that is worth sending out to the public at large. But political statements are not something I care to live with. I guess it’s not her art that fascinates me, but the people who buy her art (and that sort of art in general): what are they gaining from it? What do they do with it? Is it hanging in their living room? and do they like it because it is a political statement, because they themselves are political? What sort of urge drives an “art lover”?
I have no answers, but I am fascinated by the question.