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Defining Art from Form

Aug 17, 2007
"Any work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line." - Joseph Conrad

When you finally decide on a course of action, all the usual psychological blocks are bound to occur. Where shall I begin? Have I a right to make a choice, based on any sensible guides? Is a piece of ceramics a work of art? Is a piece of Tiffany glass? Is a rug designed by Matisse? Should I buy a painting... a print... a drawing?

There is no crystal-clear answer. As I have tried to indicate in foregoing chapters, you are dealing with your own personal reactions, as well as with certain rules and laws which are vague, at best.

One of the first muddles that need clarifying is the sharp line often drawn to set off arts from crafts. I cannot see why these two should be so summarily opposed to each other. How can anybody decide at first blush that a man who has a sense of form, an eye for color, and a definite quest for the beautiful is producing only a vessel - if he spins a lovely pot on his wheel, applies glowing glazes, and fires his work to produce a handsome jar glowing with a jewel-like finish? Yet there are critics and collectors who would dismiss the man's work with a snobbish shrug that it is a fine example of the potter's craft... but as a work of art there is no room for it.

Why, I ask, this strange, if fine, distinction? Is it because the jar is intended for functional use and the higherbrows believe such a pragmatic approach precludes it from joining the upper world of "fine arts"?

Let us go back almost 3,000 years to a Greek potter in his workshop as he formed a vessel for oil or wine. The term "vase" is now applied to most of the early Greek ceramic pieces; but their original purpose was functional... for everyday use. On such vases we see indications of an entirely new way of looking at things by the artist. He was no longer hidebound by the old style he had inherited from earlier Egyptian forms. Yet there was still the same regard for a sharp outline and exact symmetry. So vases from this period are not only valuable for their beauty of color, dimension, and proportion; they are esteemed for their obvious role in shaping a new course for the artist to follow as he broke the shackles of a hardened past. Yet it is clear that the objects as originally created had a humble purpose indeed. Such intent has not lessened their artistic validity or value.

Let us go even farther back into history. Museums which own objects from the Sumerian period display them proudly. In the University of Pennsylvania Museum there is a gold cup used by Queen Shu-Bad of Mesopotamia. It has a graceful form, a delicate gold color, and intricate decorative fluting. Obviously it was designed to provide the queen with a drinking vessel. Is it therefore less beautiful than it would have been had it lacked practical purpose?

The same will naturally apply to the pottery tomb figures of the Ming dynasty in China... to T'ang glazed pottery... to the heroic bronze cats and baboons of the Egyptians. Recently I saw a cover design for the bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, showing a drawing of an Incan Empire Poncho, made about 1500. It was an almost pure design... with cubes of black and white. At the top was a reverse triangle of deep brown. I have seen many paintings of the abstract school which could have hung side by side with this poncho reproduction.

So I say: judge by the results and forget the notion that one can always erect a false fence to separate the beautiful from the functional. If the object is beautiful to you, then it is worthy of your collector's eye and instincts. This attitude can open up many new fields to you - for example, the folk arts.
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