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JOEL Joel's Blog

What is Art For? A Visit to the Guitar Show


Guitar belonging to Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick
Guitar belonging to Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick

When I was visiting the current Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, it occurred to me that the museum shows I like best focus on useful, functional objects. Although the objects are beautiful, their artistic or decorative purpose is secondary.

The primary function of a guitar is to make music. Obviously different designs of guitars were invented to sound different, or solve a performance problem like the CCC Cheap Trick guitar above, but the main reason these guitars are on exhibit is because of their appearance and provenance - who owned and played them. I love the furniture in the Met's collection, but I know most of the items are there not because of their use and comfort (primary function) but they look (secondary function). The guitars in the show were largely described in relation to their performers and performances, not the artists who crafted them.

There are exceptions to this for me - Works by Calder and Brancusi for example - but overwhelmingly the photos I like were made for a newspaper article, and even the portraits and early paintings I love were made to honor a person or place, venerate god, or preserve a memory.

This might be my issue with most modern art. Modern art typically emphasizes the personal expression of the artist, which often isn't always well communicated. (I know, there are many exceptions to this. I've seen brilliant work by Kara Walker, for example.)

What does this mean for modern furniture? Furniture makers, using their skills to respond to the need for a chair or a table, are repeatedly told, "It's NOT art." But that's wrong. Years later as the primary purpose of the pieces are taken for granted, we get a second look and that's when we figure out if it's art. Look at the way the lines of this piece flow, someone will say. That's art. Sam Maloof started making furniture and his sinuous curved designs represent both the design ideals of postwar America and also the tools and skills he had at the time. Maloof's rockers were very comfortable, not hugely expensive (at the time) and (putting these two traits together) quite popular. Years down the road, they also are "art" and in many museums.

While I had great fun at the exhibit, my real takeaway is a message of encouragement to all woodworkers and craftspeople. You might have to make things to satisfy a personal urge to create. But don't forget you are making things for people. Ultimately what you make is about the user. Making the user happy is what keeps craft alive and once the dust settles, the artistry will be acknowledged.

Guitars made for Cream
Guitars made for Cream

The violin bass in the center was made for Paul McCartney's Jubilee Concert appearance
The violin bass in the center was made for Paul McCartney's Jubilee Concert appearance

One of two guitars in the show belonging to Keith Richards
One of two guitars in the show belonging to Keith Richards

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