Art by any other Name
Ishan Khosla’s post ‘What’s in a Name’ (see ishankhosla.wordpress.com) raises a theme that has long been bandied about in the art/design/craft world. When my earlier world in NZ was divided into an arts council and a crafts council it was fraught with the politics of labeling – as if we could be neatly separated into either artists or craftspeople. And as art always seemed to have the upper hand (and more funding) we, who were labeled craftspeople, railed against the divide. In today’s world of multitasking, working across platforms, collaborating and changing career paths I am surprised when the issue manages to surface again. But it does and Ishan’s experience reflects the changes that are happening as traditional ‘artisans’ and those who represent them find a new voice in the world of ‘art.’
I was recently criticised in my own country for using the word ‘artisan’ to describe a traditional Indian weaver because he had made works for an exhibition to hang on the wall. To the critical one’s eye the weaver had transcended a boundary and was therefore making ‘art’. Early on in the process I was careful to ask the weaver how he wished to be described in exhibition documentation and while ‘artisan’ was his choice, he is also a designer, a skilled craftsman and story-teller and, in his own right, an artist. He cannot be neatly ‘pigeon holed’ because he is each and all of these! In the end is the art/craft or artist/artisan labeling divide purely a question of semantics or is it intellectual power play or yet another form of elitism? Whatever it is, inherent in any labeling system is the danger of class/caste discrimination and perhaps it is worthwhile to remember that there are cultures in which the word ‘artist’ does not exist. Individuals simply do what they do as their contribution to the social system in which they live.
Maybe we would be better off to adopt the labeling system of some indigenous communities (as documented by social anthropologist, the late Ralph Bulmer) – not by a single label or word but by a train of thought that describes a trait or magical power such as that of the Papuan Lories otherwise known locally as ‘birds which men’s soul can turn into.’ Far more meaningful than simply Papuan Lories which is a western label after all! My artist (by her own definition) friend Maria Reichenberg who introduced me to Melanesian naming systems claims that all art is subjective and that something which is subjective by its nature, cannot be classified and any attempts at categorisation will inevitably be ethnocentric and value laden depending on whether it is an institution, university art department, critic or artist making the classification. And, in remembering the work of the late Ralph Bulmer she suggests, with thanks to him, that we may not recognise different categories of people or the work they produce if we do not value them.
In the end and, given the greater scheme of life, it matters not a whit as long as one has the sensitivity to ask the person concerned how it is they wish to be described (labeled) and to ensure the correct spelling of her or his name! As for me this week, in Melanesian terms I might well be ‘Woman who appears at low tide and collects brightly coloured plastic bottle tops.’ I take the tops home, wash and sort them, make holes in them, arrange them on part of a surfboard found last week and, when the arrangement looks OK to my eye, I tie them to the board with fishing line salvaged from the same beach. But in our world what does that make me? And is it art? Or dare I say it – craft?