From curio to collectible, from craft to art?

Art or curio? Smart Guy from the Colonial Series by Roger Bongolomba, a wood carver from the DRC. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

CURIO, collectible, craft and art. Is there a difference? For many, the distinction is as blurred and biased as a room buzzing with artistic interpretation. Even widely respected experts, with exceptional understanding of art and its value, have contrary views on what distinguishes one from the other. While they might agree on the authenticity of an art piece and even its value, when it comes to clearly defining terms, particularly craft from art, many find themselves in nebulous territory which calls for aesthetic judgement above all else.

“As its name – shortened from curiosity – suggests, a curio is something unusual or fascinating, collected, in many cases, by travellers during visits to new countries,” says Cape Town-based art historian and dealer of southern African art, Michael Stevenson.

“Many of these items, for example, were taken from Africa, as curios, by soldiers, missionaries, traders and the like, during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Little that remained in Africa survived the historic fragmentation of our society. Add to this South Africa’s poor record for appreciating things home-grown and, in this case, particularly art pieces of substance (such as beadwork, carved walking sticks and furniture), and it is not surprising that there is a scarcity of authentic historical African art in South Africa. It is only recently that the old and rare art that was taken away has begun returning to the continent to new and gradual appreciation among local collectors.”

What makes these ‘ex-curios’ valuable is the fact that they are rare and, by and large, extraordinary in terms of style, technique and imagery. They have become truly ‘collectible’, in the sense that they are regarded as being of interest and great value to collectors.

So, while ‘curio’ and ‘collectible’ are relatively easily defined, Stevenson, who co-authored (with Michael Graham-Stewart) ‘The Mlungu in Africa – Art from the colonial period, 1840-1940’, believes that, beyond historic assessment, the relationship between craft and art is a complex one. For others, it is quite simple.

Estelle Jacobs, former Gallery Director of the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) in Cape Town, is among those (including the eminent Enlightenment Philosopher, Immanuel Kant) who say the concept of craft is associated with the production of useful objects, while an artist’s work is typically without utilitarian function.

“Art is created for art’s sake,” says Jacobs. “It is a unique visual expression of intellect and emotion. Art appeals to the imagination and is not created for any practical utility, except the cultivation of the human spirit.”

British Philosopher R G Collingwood’s set of criteria, written in the 1930s to distinguish art from craft, supports Jacobs’ opinion. He says that with craft, and not with art, there is a “distinction between planning and execution” such that the “the result to be obtained is preconceived or thought out before being arrived at”.

Stevenson’s 2004 exhibition of South African art is an example of the fact that the art-craft relationship is a great deal more complex than this.

Pieces on show at his gallery in Cape Town during January and February that year included practical 19th Century items such as a Ngwato (Tswana-speaking group of people) milk pail, a North Nguni meat platter and South Nguni beaded breast covers. They are objects that accentuate tradition and skill, characteristics ascribed to crafts. Yet, artistically, they call attention too, to human creativity, emotion and symbolism, even ritual. In other words, the craft-art boundary apparent to people such as Kant, Jacobs and Collingwood is eased, blurred, and perhaps even erased.

It seems then that the strict demarcation between art and craft exists primarily in the philosopher’s imagination. At best, we might say that all traditionally acknowledged art requires the application of technique, i.e. craft. On the other hand, perhaps it is the individual who makes art art and craft craft. Or might it be more accurate – indeed, safer – to say it is the art lover who makes art art and craft collector craft craft. Art or craft in the eye of the beholder?

(This was first published in Business Day’s Art supplement.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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