Craft is Now!
In his Manifest of Bauhaus (1919) Walter Gropius claims that there is no quality difference between artist and artisan. 100 years after this strong statement, we are registering a change of direction in the world of art and design: a renewed attention is given to the act of creating, discovering a growing interest in materials and in the artistic ability of expressing the different sensibilities through tactile aspects, and on the creative power of hand-making. International museums and galleries are positively responding to this phenomenon, promoting exhibitions about craft and including craft artists and artworks in events that are known as exclusively contemporary art ones.
Both the Tate in London and the Center Pompidou in Paris, for example, have recently curated exhibitions of art fabrics, and at fairs and biennials we can notice a growing number of works by ceramists or glass artists.
Eminent figures of historical movements, such as Lucy Rye and the protagonists of Japanese Mingei, are increasing success in market.
In this context is firmly placed the Loewe Craft Prize, now on its fourth edition and promoted by the luxury leather goods brand Loewe. The artworks of the finalists of the actual and past editions (some of them exhibited in April 2019 at ESH Gallery) represent an opportunity to think about the Gropius statement, rooted in late 19th century in England, in the Arts & Crafts tradition and perhaps never really taken into consideration by the art critics. Today it seems to be changing. It is important to think about the meaning of doing artistic craftsmanship and what consideration this unexplored branch of artistic categorization should have in the consolidated world of the contemporary art market.
The first problem is about terminology: it is not easy to give a definition that is acceptable for everybody, because it is the historical experience that marks out the shades that this word is carrying with itself.
Ugo La Pietra, architect, designer and student of decorative arts claims:
“Ordinary people knows artistic craftmanship because of little markets and street fairs. This is a kind of craftsmanship that the stream culture has always named “kitsch” (something bad tasting), with few exceptions. On the other hand there is a more elegant craftsmanship which it traces the styles and models of the past.[…]
From this context, artisans have always distinguished themselves capable of renewing the language, defining what it is so called “Artistic Excellence Craft”, often made by individual authors able to express themselves through a contemporary language, taking distances from the art world”.
If for La Pietra the described experience is purely Italian, in an international context (American and European) the term “craft” today refers to a group of skills in the field of ceramics, glass, metal, fabric and wood in which contemporary criticism itself has emphasized the author’s skill by celebrating specifically the technical ones.
The corresponding Japanese term is kogei, that is maybe the most suitable for defining the status of the craft field nowadays. Kogei defines an independent form of art which harmonizes form and function, bringing beauty into everyday objects through the use of ceramics, lacquer, fabrics and other materials.
Misato Fudo, curator of the XXI century Contemporary Art Museum of Kanazawa:
“While contemporary art focuses on concept, the kogei artist is interested in controlling the material through his own ability, capable of exalting the material’s characteristics, because the aim is showing the idea behind that. Kogei starts with the material. It is probably the beauty in centering the perfect balance between shaping the nature of a material and exploring its qualities that enchants the West of the XXI century”.
But how can we judge an object and grasping its characteristics in order to consider it a true work of art?
The work of art might be defined when an idea, a concept or a theme is transferred by the artist, thanks to his expressive language and through a researching path into a realization that allows us to grasp aspects and ideas in order to engage an imaginary dialogue. If we add creativity and originality – values inherent to the artistic making – the craft work, as clearly expressed by Alberto Cavalli, has to express extra values. First of all the contemporary craftsmanship known as a never ending dialogue between material and action, between project and its perfect translation in an excellent product.[…] The processing are made with hand techniques, with a high technique level”. There is no room for extemporization. It is request to the artist/artisan/maker to innovate. That means modifying something that already existed (the tradition) and adding new elements.
If we succeeded in seeing an element of territoriality, this would represent a further interpretative key to bring out a particular aesthetic and historical-artistic tradition of that region, nation or territory.
 Alberto Cavalli, Il valore del mestiere. Elementi per una valutazione dell’eccellenza artigiana. 2014, Marsilio