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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Know their names

Crystal Bridges’ ‘Crafting America’ exhibition shows that art is also in the everyday things we use and that the artisans who made them are also artists by Philip Martin | April 4, 2021 at 2:29 a.m.
It can take 5,000 hours — or a year — to make a Carnival suit like “Circle Dance — A Tribute to John Scott,” a costume fashioned by Darryl Montana, Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas “Hunters” Black “masking” Indian Tribe in New Orleans. The costume is part of “Crafting America,” the exhibition continuing at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Philip Martin)

BENTONVILLE — The difference between the artist and the artisan may be something like celebrity.

Before the 15th century or so, the concept of "artist" barely existed. A typical medieval European workshop was a hive of collaboration, with a master directing the labors of apprentices and journeymen according to a set of strict guild guidelines that had been passed on for generations.

This was true whether the products being produced were hats or saddles or spoons or glass goblets or tapestries or oil paintings. These works were regarded as collective endeavors, and to the extent that anyone received credit for bringing them into the world, it was the patron who commissioned and paid for the piece.

Innovation and creativity were not highly prized; instead, works were valued more for how they conformed to long-established traditions. What people wanted was more of the same old excellence.

Then, around 1400 A.D., in Florence, Italy, something sparked a revival of interest in classical works of antiquity — the statues, frescoes and architecture of the ancient Greeks and the Romans. This was accompanied by the first stirrings of what we now call "Renaissance humanism."

People began to think about the classical world, its history and artifacts, and began to drift away from religious absolutism and wonder what it meant to be human. Suddenly individual creativity — the idea that a man could steal the fire of the gods and create something — became an intriguing possibility.

Enter an artist and architect named Giorgio Vasari. In some respects, Vasari has not been treated kindly by history; if you scout around the internet for information on him you are liable to encounter the received judgment that his "own Mannerist paintings were more admired in his lifetime than afterwards." This is a phrase that follows him around the internet.

But Vasari was a friend of Michelangelo and other artists we now consider important, and he understood branding. In 1550, he published what is widely considered the first important work of art history: "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects."

In the book, Vasari offered a critical history of Western art that still informs the way we think today. He talked about how the excellence of the art produced in classical antiquity was followed by a tragic break with traditions, resulting in the inferior art of the Dark Ages. But now, he argued, Tuscany, and especially Florence, were in the midst of what he called the "rinascita," or "rebirth." In effect, Vasari branded his era "the Renaissance," and we've been buying into his version of events ever since.

It's not wrong to look at "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" as a kind of marketing campaign, an argument for the glory of Florence. Maybe it's telling that Vasari dedicated it to his chief patron (as well as patron of a lot of the artists profiled in the book), the Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici.

"Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" is a book that retains its usefulness today, though the largely expanded second edition is more common than the initial volume. But its influence was immediate.

For centuries before its publication, painters had generally been paid by the square foot. Now that they had been singled out as individual creators — as "names" — some of them were able to persuade their customers to pay them on the basis of their work's perceived merit instead.

This sparked a revolution in how people came to think about art — suddenly it was less a question of collective production than individual inspiration. Suddenly artists were special, endowed with talent and occasionally genius.

They could scratch off a doodle and it would be worth something — they were granted a Midas touch. All their work was by definition art, for they were artists.

But Vasari only elevated "painters, sculptors and architects." All the others who labored away in guilds were still considered — when considered at all — instructions-following craftsmen. Skilled perhaps, but not touched in same way true artists were. Their work was decorative and utilitarian. Not art.

Gallery: Crystal Bridges' "Crafting America"

"Crafting America," the exhibition continuing at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, does not insist on any bright-line rule to determine whether a work is art or craft. It simply invites us to consider the reasons things are made, and the intent that forces the expression.

Is the difference between craft and art mere intent? Does a craftsman mean to make a cup while an artist means to express emotive yearnings? Or is it that a craftsman follows the instructions while an artist imagines new worlds? Following along with a Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" video or a paint-by-numbers kit is craft; gesturally flinging paint onto a canvas is art?

It can take 5,000 hours — or a year — to make a Carnival suit like "Circle Dance — A Tribute to John Scott," a costume fashioned by Darryl Montana, Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas "Hunters" Black "masking" Indian Tribe in New Orleans.

Montana is the fourth generation in his family to mask, a tradition that stretches back to the mid-19th century, when his great-great-uncle Becate Batiste started the first known masking Black Indian tribe in the mid 1800s in New Orleans, called the Creole Wild West. The tradition honors indigenous Americans who harbored runaway slaves.

Montana learned to bead when he was 6 years old and made his first suit when he was 10 or 11, using a vinyl raincoat as his pattern. He learned the craft from his father, Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana, who began masking when he was 7, and walked in parades as the "chief of chiefs" on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Day for 52 years, beginning in 1947.

Tootie was a legend who did much to divert the Mardi Gras Indians away from internecine violence to music, dance and competitions based on the beauty and intricacy of their suits, which were created with sequins, beads, pearls, marabou feathers and semiprecious stones. (Tootie died in spectacular fashion, from a heart attack while in the chamber of the New Orleans City Council immediately after delivering a speech recounting five decades of police harassment of Mardi Gras Indians. His last words were: "This has got to stop.")

Montana's Carnival suit is strategically placed next to one of Nick Cave's Soundsuits in the exhibit, a canny juxtaposition that invites us to consider the similarities between the costumes. Cave is an established — a famous — artist whose Soundsuits (sewn from sisal, dyed human hair, beads, plastic buttons, wire, feathers, toys, sequins, tchotchkes and other found and ordinary objects) are considered an important part of his practice as a conceptual artist. He came up with the concept in part because he wanted to submerse his identity in wearable sculpture, which can present as threatening, playful, terrifying or simply strange.

In this context, the Soundsuit appears as an emissary from the world of art, in solidarity with the craft of a master suitmaker.

“¿Qué me ves? (What Are You Looking At?),” a 2007 piece by Einar and Jamex de la Torre made of blown glass, cast resin, and found objects on painted plasma-cut aluminum. (Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum)
“¿Qué me ves? (What Are You Looking At?),” a 2007 piece by Einar and Jamex de la Torre made of blown glass, cast resin, and found objects on painted plasma-cut aluminum. (Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum)

Comprising more than 120 objects from 98 creators made from 1940 to today, "Crafting America" is a story of human experience told through ceramics, wood, metal, fiber, glass, textiles and other materials, divided straightforwardly into four sections: Introduction/What Is Craft, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

"There are many different ways to look at craft, but for our purposes, craft is skilled making on a human scale," the exhibit's co-creator, Crystal Bridges associate curator Jen Padgett, says in a news release announcing the exhibition. That allows for a lot, even for makers who might otherwise object to having their work presented as "mere craft." (Can a bowl be debased by its being employed as an actual vessel? Is some china too fine to eat off of?)

It begins, as you might expect, with common (if exquisite) items: a tea set made of hand-thrown red clay by Avant Garde artist Beatrice Wood from the 1940s (James Cameron's primary model for the character Rose whom Kate Winslet plays in his movie "Titanic," though Wood was not a passenger on the ship) and "Wolf Bowl/Dish" (1964), carved from yellow cedar and walrus ivory by David Williams, a member of the Pacific Northwest Tlingit tribe. Again, the exhibition is calling us to consider the ways our knowledge of the artist impinge upon how we receive the work.

Wood is a well-known figure; in addition to being the model for Rose, she's often said to be one of the people who inspired Henri-Pierre Roché's 1956 roman à clef about a love triangle, "Jules et Jim," that François Truffaut made into a film in 1962. She wasn't, as she explained in her 1985 autobiography "I Shock Myself"; Roché had written the book before he ever met her. She did, however, pal around with Marcel Duchamp, who dubbed her the "Mama of Dada."

Well-connected, wealthy, celebrated and gossiped about on two continents, Wood (1893-1998) was very much a denizen of the art scene, the sort of artist who could auction off her doodles because she was who and what she was.

Williams (1904-1973) is relatively obscure. While his work — especially his totem poles — have been collected by many museums, including the Smithsonian, about the only thing you will find online about him is a memorial written by his daughter. His Tlingit name was "Kowdooxgoosh" He had a third-grade education but he spent a month in London in 1971, giving demonstrations of his craft. Apparently he lunched with the Queen during this trip.

Now we come across Myra Mimlitsch-Gray's "Melting Teapot" (2005), which appears to be exactly that, a melting silver teapot dripping Dali-esquely over the side of the block it's resting on. You can receive it as a witty sculpture, or as a conversation piece, and a beautiful object, but it would probably not work as an actual teapot.

This is contrasted with a perfectly fine Danish modern-style silver coffeepot from 1958 by Danish-American metalsmith John Prip, who designed functional vessels for Reid and Barton and once taught a class Mimlitsch-Gray attended. The exhibit seems to say, "Here's one from the 'art' column and one we've arbitrarily consigned to craft."

It doesn't matter, for all art is also craft, and mostly a question of intent. Some of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition are those that might be touched and put to use for purposes other than starting conversations.

Wendell Castle's "Chest of Drawers" (1962) — it seems a little precious to treat the name of the thing as a title, but maybe that's another affectation of art — is beautiful and ingeniously functional, no less a real piece of furniture than Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa's "Untitled (Chest of Drawers)" that the artist built from scrapped packing crates and scavenged brushwood while he was incarcerated at Minidoka War Relocation Camp in Idaho during World War II.

(Hikogawa, who trained as a carpenter in Japan before immigrating to the U.S. in 1924, also trained fellow internee George Nakashima — who'd go on to be one of the most important woodworkers of the 20th century — during their incarceration.)

Most of the crafts here could be put to practical purposes, but all of them contain an element of subversion and a layering of meaning. Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn's series of traditionally woven baskets might seem at first glance elegant and humble, but the co-opting of the generic labeling style used by the U.S. government to label products is witty and unnerving, an invitation to reconsider what we regard as staple.

An electric guitar is also on display. It is a replica — or very similar to — the iconic "Angel Cloud" white model that was featured in Prince's 1984 movie "Purple Rain." While electric guitars are often produced en mass, they are also individual instruments, each of which might be said to possess unique qualities. The Cloud guitar represents an especially interesting case study of the lines between art and craft.

According to an Instagram post by Prince's estate, the design for the guitar was based on a custom bass guitar Prince had admired in a shop window and bought at the beginning of his career. He took it to Dave Rusan, who worked at his favorite Minneapolis guitar shop, Knut Koupee Music, to have it copied as a six-string electric specifically for use as a longed-for fetish item in the movie. Rusan made four of the guitars for Prince, each designed after the custom bass, whose maker has been lost to history. While it may have been that the guitar was initially envisioned as more of a theatrical prop than a stage instrument, Prince liked playing it, and the Cloud guitar became an iconic stage instrument.

The original Cloud, thought for a while to be lost, resurfaced and sold at auction last year for $563,500. (This one, considered the original, started out white like the example at Crystal Bridges, but was painted blue in the '80s. A teal Cloud guitar originally made for Prince by Rusan sold for $700,000 in November 2017; Prince's custom-made yellow Cloud guitar sold for $225,000 in May 2018.) It's hard to say what the guitar on the wall of Crystal Bridges is worth; Rusan maintains a Facebook page and will give you a quote for a serious inquiry.

In 2019 he — or the Prince estate, or both of them — licensed the design to Schecter guitars, which sold a version of the guitar online and at Prince's Paisley Park studio for $1,750. That deal has apparently expired, but you can still find Schecter Clouds in the secondary market — as of last week, you could have bought one from a guy in the Netherlands for $13,400.41 plus $196.70 shipping. (When last I checked, two people had it in their shopping carts, ready to pull the trigger.) That was the only Cloud found online that I had reasonable confidence was an officially licensed version.

On the other hand, you can find hundreds of "counterfeit" replicas and copies of the guitar all over the internet, starting for about $250. If you hang it on your wall, nobody but your guitar geek friend is likely to know it's not genuine. And you'll probably sound as much like Prince playing the copy as you would with the authentic No. 1.

The Rusan Cloud, and the rest of the exhibition, is hanging in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art until May 31.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com | blooddirtangels.com

‘Crafting America’

  • When: On display through May 31
  • Where: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville
  • Cost: $12; free for members, veterans, SNAP participants and those younger than 18
  • Information: (479) 418-5700, crystalbridges.org
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