Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Beauty in All Things

Harumi Nakashima’s Struggling Form. Courtesy of MAD.

When the American Craft Museum changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in 2002, it was much criticized mainly because it was not clear what the board of trustees had envisioned as its future. The uneasiness of not knowing what curatorial direction the institution would take added to the frustration of those art historians, critics, and museum professionals for whom the pulse of the time clearly showed signs of “return to craftsmanship.” Ten years later, this trend has been fortified and has penetrated several levels of production, from the artistic to the commercial and everything in between. The question remains pertinent for some: “Why drop the word craft from its name when craftsmanship and the ability to work material with one’s hands has become much coveted for those who cannot claim any association with it either on a purely intellectual or simply material level?”

I have often wondered about this myself and weighed both positions: to be or not to be (the Craft Museum)? My visit to the current exhibit “Beauty in All Things: Japanese Art and Design,” convinced me that “art and design” are descriptors of the term craft and as such even more timeless than the term they identify. As expected, the emphasis of the exhibit is on products/artifacts produced in Japan and their relationship with the Japanese concepts of beauty, including shizen, wabi sabi, and datsuzoku. While sparse, the exhibition labels explain the relationship of each separate grouping of pieces (objects–things) with a particular term.

Beyond these clear associations that are also sources of inspiration for the artists, what stays with the visitor is the pure materiality of the pieces exhibited. This is expressed in their painstakingly developed forms and surfaces, the exploit of traditional techniques and materials in new directions for new outcomes, the experimental approach to old traditions with innovative technologies and prominence of all the physical characteristics of each piece. For example, in Masakazu Kobayashi’s Angel’s Robe, which is made of silk, its heaviness is felt by sight only. The conceptual stretch of expressing the “weight each angel bears on her shoulders,” is where craft and art meet. Equally impressive is a golden necklace in which the beading is obvious while the engineering feat of creating this suspended bridge around someone’s neck reminds us of Calatrava’s works. In ceramics, the artists’ familiarity with and intimate knowledge of the material’s properties allows the development of delicate, albeit dynamic forms as in Harumi Nakashima’s Struggling Form.  Here, in addition to the playfulness that comes across through technique, material, and form (terms that apply to craft and design) the artist projects his own interest in Pop Art and anime in a tongue-in-cheek composition (an approach that brings craft closer to art).

A visit to the 3rd floor of the museum, where “Beauty in All Things” is staged, is enough to convince the last of the skeptics that both art and design are indeed directions craft can take. MAD has found its footing. While its presentations often suffer from lack of contextual information (is it a matter of funding?), its presence greatly contributes to the appreciation of art that had been, up to now, relegated to a lower rate existence within the world of contemporary art.

Here is a link to the exhibit through the MAD website.

© Thomaï Serdari