The divide between “pure” art (painting and sculpture mostly) and functional art (lighting, ceramics, furniture, and so much else) comes and goes in history depending on who has the power to enforce its shaky distinctions. Just now the contemporary art market tilts toward the healthy side of the issue: a table by Urs Fischer, for instance, is a work of art that functions as a table. No questions asked.
It was not always so, and I like to think that the rising appreciation of the arts and crafts movement did more than its share to reunite artist and craftsman in our eyes. But it took a while. When I happened upon Robert Judson Clark’s exhibition of American arts and crafts objects in 1972 at Princeton University it was a surprise and a revelation. Abstract expressionism and pop art were art. Craft was not. A certain sniffiness about the latter lingered in the decades to come. We are long past that point now, as you will see in Rachel Delphia’s superb article on a private collection in Philadelphia where arts and crafts objects have found their ideal home and where the civilizing vision of the movement shines forth in every room. The contemporary art in the collection, so different in the questions it asks and answers, is also at home here because it too is deeply rooted in matters of material reality.
I should mention that this collection is one I have hoped to show in the magazine since first seeing it six years ago when it was beautifully installed in a Manhattan apartment. That it seems far better destined for its new setting only means that this editor was rewarded for an instance of uncharacteristic patience.
But things do seem to come back to us here, and that is one of the pleasures of the job. Christopher Monkhouse’s article joining his exhibition of Irish decorative arts at the Art Institute of Chicago to the history of this magazine, where these objects were celebrated and advertised long ago, is an instance of his generosity and what I might call the magazine’s good karma if that does not sound too squish-headed. Then too the silver, furniture, and porcelain in his article give us one more instance of skill married to elegance, our theme for the day…and the duration.
I do not want to neglect the rest of the issue—the scholarly appreciations of John Mix Stanley and Lewis Buckner, a deep reading of the paintings of J. M. W. Turner in the light of the recent Mike Leigh film, our report on the new generation of fraktur-ish artists, as well as my little conversion experience on the subject of fraktur. The theme that animates it all? Dulce et utile once again, the beautiful tied to the useful, or so we hope.