IN DEFENCE OF THE FUNCTIONAL OBJECT
(Among Other Things)


I feel compelled to join the discourse taking place in the pages of the Art Magazines. A resurgence of memories of the various exhibitions I have seen recently and the work I viewed in North West America on a recent trip, juxtaposed with a photograph of the Curator of Contemporary Craft at our largest museum, beaming as he presents a large enamelled heraldic vessel, set me to thinking. Why is it that contemporary glassworkers in Australia are reluctant to present functional objects as examples of their finest efforts, when our museums are full of such works from previous ages?

A sufficiently paranoid response would suggest some sort of curatorial conspiracy to defend the purchase of items which at the time of their creation were primarily functional and by virtue of their age fall into a different category than similar objects made today. I'm still taking my tablets so I couldn't possibly think that. In Japan there is no art/craft debate as we know it and the distinction between functional object and art is blurred, such that the supreme examples of both tend to reside within the one piece. Witness the revered status of Fujita, who makes boxes. There seems to be no problem in recognising the artistic merit of his work and no attempt to dilute it by inference that the 'other' perspective on it is that he makes rather natty little containers with really well fitting lids. I think it would be interesting if such aesthetic values pertained here.



There may be several explanations for this not being the case. Japanese cultural identity places great value in the beauty, simplicity and excellence of the small number of objects to be found in most traditional homes. Sparsely decorated spaces demand both practical and intellectual function in one object and the minimum standard for a teacup became excellence. It is interesting to note that with the new age of prosperity driven consumerism and the cluttering of living spaces with more things, much contemporary Japanese art is no longer functionally based, although that dichotomy has not diminished the original values. In our case however, the functional object has a very hard time making it as art.

This is probably as good a time as any to put my two cents worth into the art/craft debate. I see art as the crafted expression of human intellect. For the 'chicken and eggers', that means craft comes first. Craft can be art, as evidenced by the elevation in status of sufficiently venerable, mundane, functional objects. The glass collection of the National Gallery of Victoria overflows with vessels of one sort or another, highly decorated platters and improbable containers. The National Gallery in Canberra displays functional art in the foyer. Yet exhibitions from the prestigious International affairs to those at the local community gallery show different fare.

Excuses seem to be needed by the commentators, such as "allusions to the vessel" or "reminiscent of a functional object". Now does the fault lie in the interpretation or in the pieces put up for review? Our culture no longer places the sort of value upon an artistic, useful object that was requisite when such objects were rare and people had few, highly valued possessions. There is insufficient emphasis placed on skilful craft in our learning institutions, against a fear of repressing the individual's ability for self expression. This has even resurfaced as the political ideology of the new Right in ascendancy and I fear the possibility of the union between the emerging 'arts' and this philosophy.

The fact is that many Contemporary Australian glass artists make more functional objects than anything else. Some, it is true, churn out clones in a production process, the sole purpose of which is to finance their survival and in the time allowed by this 'prostitution', they make a few pieces of art. Some lead a hand to mouth or grant to mouth existence and only produce art which is very definitely non-functional. A few persist in presenting exquisite functional art and get precious little kudos for their efforts and herein lies the 'crux of the biscuit' (to quote the late Frank Zappa): the dichotomy between the gallery circuit and the rest of the world. The last AUSGLASS Conference tackled this issue but I haven't really noticed anything changing.

There are three contenders for arbiter; the artist, the critic and the customer. A complex relationship can develop when all three know about each other and perhaps an even more complex one, when they don't. There is a perception that the final word comes with the purchase of the piece; that this act imbues the said object with merit by the very act of a discerning purchaser handing over some of their 'hard earned' in return for it. The critics (read curator, gallery proprietor, academic) are seen as being highly influential and authoritative and a good review can allow the artist to raise the price. However, where do the majority of sales occur? They are not through exhibitions but directly to the plebians, through Department stores, from the studio shelves or more commonly, the combined gallery/studio, the boutique breweries of the art world.

The influence of the opinion of the critics is substantially diluted in this arena and the equation becomes simplified to: what goes out is proportional to the value of what comes in. This invests the artist with the greatest influence. Those who chose to make functional forms with artistic merit find acceptance and are successful in the marketplace, as ever they were. There will always be a market for cheap junk, but let me establish that I am not talking about that. In America, Europe and Japan, there is a tradition of fine art being available in Department stores, more commonly perceived as purveyors of utilitarian goods. In fact, the return of art to these market places is an historical full circle, which leaves the academics and galleries in the cold. Artists, art bureaucrats and politicians are realising the value of art for both its monetary and intellectual stimulation. The items which make up the bulk of the object market are functional. If this is reality, why are we so reluctant to recognise it? Is there some deep cultural psychic trauma related to a generation of bottlefed babies who have grown up with some unnamed angst about glass vessels or is it just an offshoot of cultural cringe?

I think it is time to stop trying so hard to get away from the functional and learn to deal with it. I don't contend that art must in some way be exclusively functional in a physical sense, but so much of contemporary art seems an incredibly contrived attempt by artists to distance themselves as far as possible from anything with which the observer might be comfortable. I know art often needs to be confrontationist and we must stimulate the viewer to deal with their innermost fears and exorcise the demons. So perhaps we need to face a few of our own, stop trying too hard and fulfil a great need: for beautiful, stimulating objects which people can relate to, pick up, drink from, keep things in, do something other than just gather dust and frighten the children.

Marc Grunseit 4/5/94

Marc Grunseit is a practising glass artist working from his studio in Waverley, Sydney