A Harder Soft

June 8 - July 21, 2018

Featured artists: 
Jon P. Geiger, Matthew Harris, Stephanie Kantor, Noah Travis Phillips, Don Porcella, Gretchen Marie Schaefer, Sarah Schlesinger.

Does anyone actually care where a vase fits into the hierarchy of the arts? Further, does the concept of the “hierarchy of the arts” actually still mean anything? No doubt it had meant a great deal in the past, defining the aesthetics of art history’s most recognized epochs. One might recall the Renaissance debates about whether painting or sculpture was the “higher” art, with painting coming out on top due to a perceived distinction between work with the hands and work with the mind. This classist distinction between different forms of labour also placed poetry above sculpture. Painting remained on top when the hierarchy was readdressed during the 18th century, when the concept of “fine art”, art for the purpose of cultivation of taste, first emerged. 

Something changed in the 20th century, however, due to increasing criticism of Western traditions. While so many modernists fought to challenge the passive acceptance of traditions of painting, post-modernists, second-wave feminists in particular, started to challenge the hierarchy of the arts itself. The classist distinctions between work with hands and work with mind, fine art and practical art, were found to coexist with notions of women’s work and primitivism. The use of medium in, for example, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is not to be considered just the vehicle through which a confrontational message is delivered. The medium itself is confrontational. 

This is all to say that the post-modern erosion of the distinction between high and low arts not only changed the nature of subject matter so that an image of Katy Perry dressed like a cupcake-princess could have its place in the National Portrait Gallery, but it also liberated medium. 

So here we are in a period post-postmodern, whatever that means, where conversations about hierarchies in the arts are, to the relief of many of us, banal. Painting of course never “died” just because it got knocked from its privileged place. In an epoch marked by artists using large studios of assistants to turn out branded artworks or highly industrial processes, painting starts to look pretty craft-y too. An artist is free to comfortably jump from painting to knitting to glitchy memes. It seems that the relevant conversation is now one of how medium is communicative. 

Consider the difference between how optical blending, a way of mixing colors by putting small bits of different colors next to each other and allowing them to blend in the eye of the viewer at a distance, is affected by its manifestation in a specific medium. A tapestry and a computer screen are both examples of optical blending. A mosaic of ceramic tiles vs. ben-day dots. Medium is semantically loaded, but that baggage changes in relation to culture. A medium’s physical properties are the only constants. 

This is a conversation about our cultural disposition toward mediums. We’ve had a tradition of dividing them up in a dialectic rather than phenomenologically, with “fine art” and “craft” representing distinct categories. When we arrive at the synthesis of fine art and craft, a new disposition toward art-objects can be developed. In a way, the art-object divorced from the connotations of “fine art” or “craft” is closer to being-in-itself. 

Yet the art-object is not just being-in-itself, because it is constituted as an art-object rather than just some lump of matter that reflects light or makes noise. The art-object is imbued with intent. It has agency. What it communicates, however, need not necessarily be a discourse on how society had been oriented toward its specific medium. While this conversation remains one which mediums like textiles or ceramics are suited to participate in (history is not “behind” us, after all), they also have the potential to partake in more broad, less literal discourses. Medium has always been open, even if that openness was previously rendered invisible. 

So maybe this is also a conversation about how we do not need to have this conversation anymore. 

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