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 Joel's Blog at Tools for Working Wood

But Is It Art?  

01/31/2012

Last week I wrote about epochs in the history of woodworking and several people suggested that I needed to add a revival category for all those folks making furniture now.

I didn't for two reasons. Even with the growing numbers of people making stuff the actual percentages of people making furniture for fun and friends is tiny compared to the population at large. And on the professional level the numbers are even smaller.

When I was a boy in the 1960's my parents needed some more closet space in their tiny apartment. A carpenter, a Mr. Goldstein came and did a fair amount of work on site. The closets were modern for their time, made of varnished plywood and sliding doors. We took the two cabinets with us when we moved and they live on at my parents house in Queens.

If doing something similar today my parents would have gone to Ikea, or Home Depot, or some other big chain. The idea of getting real custom work on a civil servant's salary would be pretty rare today.

On the other hand the custom cabinetmakers who are my tool customers are making really cool stuff for very rich clients.

You see custom made furniture whether made by you for yourself or made for someone rich is a form of cultural expression that we use to say something.

For the rich person it's a way of conspicuous consumption. A way of showing that they are cultured and refined. For people making stuff for themselves it's a way of showing individualism and personal values.

In my case the furniture I made is a fairly regular conversation point. When I was single it was one way I subtly showed the women who I managed to lure to my abode that I was a stable person, dextrous and rooted in tradition and traditional family values. As a family man, the solid pieces show us as traditional, non-trendy, and with a sense of history and permanence. I'm not going to be tossing the settles I made twenty years ago just because someone on the TV says furniture this year should be all blue.

There are lots of reasons for making stuff yourself and I just touched on a few reasons. All of this comes under the concept of "personal expression"

And that's what makes it art.


As furniture makers we are anomalies in our culture. Our work, even though it is most of the time in traditional forms and in many cases unoriginal forms, in the finished context of being used in a room in our house it is a personal statement just like a work of art is. We didn't have to make that table, we could have bought a table - but we didn't. This is the same idea but a different, just as valid form of expression, as painting a picture.

For a wealthy customer deciding to have someone design and make the perfect vanity for the bedroom is just as much a statement as finding the perfect picture to hang over the mantle.


For those of you who say that it's not art because the design isn't original and it's just a copy I say go to a museum and count the sculptures of "Madonna and Child" or go look at some landmarked building and count the stock details made by anonymous craftsman. Now it's art, then it was just craft. The personal expression of wanting something you made is the message of your art and it's just as valid as someone who paints a picture and has it hanging in a museum (except they have a better agent).

Note: The picture above is of the top half of the cabinets custom made by Mr. Goldstein for my parents' Manhattan apartment c. 1966. It now sits in their basement and is used for storage. The bottom half is in the garage.
Tags:Historical Subjects
Comments: 18
01/31/2012R Francis 
No it is not art, any more than a painting a picture is art because it uses art materials and is an 'artistic' activity. It is craft (sometimes) but art is reserved for a different type of expression, one in which there is a conscious interpretation of the world rather than a depiction or reproduction of it. (think of Cezanne landscapes or Duchamp ready-mades etc and consider the interpretation of the religious history and meaning within the tradition of a Madonna and Child when you ask if it art or not)
It is a valid self expression but do not pretend it can aspire to art, please.
01/31/2012jg 
<tongue in cheek>

If it fulfills it's intended purpose, it's craft. If the soup bowl has a hole in the bottom...it's art.
01/31/2012Bob 
I think of every piece I have made as being art for the very reasons you mentioned. You pour whatever free time you have into making something nice and attractive. Art. Thanks!
Why do people take time to read blogs they do not agree with?
01/31/2012Peter 
Art is in the eyes of the beholder. It cannot, and should not be defined, by any one standard. A crucifix in a jar of urine is art to one person, but a waste of a good jar to me. I know what art is, but I cannot not define it or explain it. I just know what it is.
01/31/2012david 
The definition I heard many years ago and the one I still use is: Art is something that is sensual; i.e.-it appeals to one or more of the senses. If I look at a painting or hear a piece of music and it strikes an emotional chord in me, I consider it art. If I need to have someone explain it to me because I do not have such a reaction, I do not consider art in "my" terms.
01/31/2012Elh 
Let me see if I have this right - self expression is craft and conscious interpretation of the world is art? So, what is a Sam Maloof chair - a pretentious whimmy doodle? Is Fallingwater just an another architect's self expression? This penchant for exclusivity creates an awfully narrow view of the world's beauty and mystery.
Aspire? Really? How vain. Must have been a great class.
01/31/2012Tim C. 
You impinge on the sovereignty of the artist when you bring the conversation so low as to decide whether or not a piece is &quot;art.&quot; If the maker says he has created art, we must take him at his word, and then move the conversation to more profitable grounds. An artist invests his time, understanding, aspirations, and emotions into a piece. An outsider then protesting that the item in question has not "risen to art" assumes to know more about the piece than the maker. This is the planest sort of folly. The answer to the "is it art?" question should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
01/31/2012Pete B. 
Does it come from the head or from the heart? That is the difference, I think. And I believe most people can tell at a glance whether or not a piece is art, because the artist will put that bit of extra love and care into the piece that is subtle but unmistakable.
01/31/2012Croesus 
I do not know whether to be surprised that I am rich, or annoyed that I am accused of being a conspicuous consumer.

I am an amateur furniture maker, but when we decided to have two walls of bookcases built to house my wife's two thousand books, I hired a professional -- my city shop was simply too small to accommodate these large structures. We designed them to harmonize with the design of the built in cabinetry of our 100 year old house.

There is no doubt they are beautiful. There is no doubt they are functional. Art and function readily coexist, as anyone who has seen a type 57 Bugatti will attest.
01/31/2012joel http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com
Croesus,
You might be both, you might be neither, who am I to judge. When I realized that I would never have the time to build a record cabinet to house our thousands of records I had a professional cabinetmaker make a giant record cabinet to my specifications. It actually replaced a record cabinet I built many years previously &#40; my first major piece of furniture&#41;. So I'm in the same boat. The point is neither of us thought to just go to Ikea and get the best thing they happened to have on sale at the moment. That makes us different from most people.
02/01/2012R Francis 
Craft is, as David Pye wrote, 'a word to start an argument with.'
And Donald Judd, sculptor and furniture designer might have added
'The configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture. The intent of art is different from that of the latter, which must be functional. If a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous. The art of a chair is not its resemblance to art, but is partly its reasonableness, usefulness and scale as a chair. These are proportion, which is visible reasonableness. The art in art is partly the assertion of someones interest regardless of other considerations. A work of art exists as itself; a chair exists as a chair itself. And the idea of a chair isnt a chair. '
02/01/2012joel http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com
R,
If that's the case then the hundreds of chairs in the museums are not art. The hundreds of religious icons of lots of faith aren't art either - being made as function objects of faith.

I don't buy that.

But I think a lot of people missed a point of my argument. I'm arguing that in this day and age actually MAKING something is a form of art. A type of performance art, but art just the same. The act of making something, and the final custom object when done are such exceptional acts these days it's a matter of personal expression why anyone would bother. And that is what makes it art.
02/01/2012Bob Miller 
R Francis,
You are saying that Realist visual art is not really art because it does not attempt to be a "conscious interpretation of the world" Also I think there are quite a number of professional photographers who would take offense to your statement.

Joel,
I loved the blog post, I had never thought of having furniture I made as a statement.
02/03/2012Casey 
Art? Expression? Craft? Interesting. I'll leave the answer to that to people with nothing better to do. I'm going out to my garage to something useful, that hopefully someone will think, is also beautiful. Bla Bla Bla.. Order some tools and go work some wood!
02/05/2012Harlan Barnhart 
I pondered this question on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Judging by their collection, art is either a functional item separated from us by time or culture, or a non-functional item near to us in time and culture.
02/07/2012Don Bursch 
What a coincidence! I saw this after just spending weeks making a somewhat utilitarian table for our garage window, to winter some plants and a cool place for the cats to lounge in Summer. I put a lot of complex, sound joinery into it. It has a tiled top set in a box like top perimeter whose corners are hand dovetailed, there are through tenons in the middle where a stretcher supports the midpoint, all the joints are mortised/tenoned and drawbored. Sold ash. All for a garage table. But I told myself that I am making tomorrows antiques today. I wish I could post a picture of it, because it is a work of art.
02/09/2012Carlos Flores 
This is exactly why I now do most of my work with hand tools: it is highly philosophical. You would never see this type of expression in a power tool context blog. Now I'm not saying that power tool users don't have any philosophy. What I'm saying is that working with hand tools allows you to have deep thoughts, synthesis, it evokes your sense.
We need to go back to the basic principles. Looks at the garbage that everyone is consuming at Ikea, wal-mart, etc.
Is it art?
03/19/2012Bridget Watts http://bewatts.com/
I'm not going to get into the art vs. craft argument. To me, the relevant dichotomy in this post is between making something lasting and beautiful vs. buying something cheap and disposable from Ikea or Walmart. The craftsperson is doing something countercultural by treating his or her materials with respect. By not behaving as if all of creation were ours to use and trash like used kleenex.

I've just been visiting my mother in her home that is full of furniture my father built in the 1960's, mostly out of redwood reclaimed from houses that were being torn down. Solid and beautiful and still bearing witness to the presence of my father's hands.
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