The Case of the Stool Sculpture

Wendell Castle is best known as a leading member of the Studio Furniture movement in mid-twentieth century America. In 1959, exasperated by the unwillingness of the art world establishment to recognize his furniture as art and not just fine craftsmanship, he entered what looked like an abstract wood sculpture in a juried show. Once the judges had accepted and exhibited his entry, he let it be known that it was actually a stool and gave it the title Stool Sculpture. So far as he was concerned, if the establishment experts could not tell the difference between a sculpture and a stool, then there was no difference.

Arthur Danto discusses this case in Beyond the Brillo Box (1992, Farrar Straus Giroux, pp. 34-36). He points out that Castle's "proof" would have been more convincing had his stool looked more like an ordinary stool and less like a typical abstract sculpture, and that of course the judges would then have refused to accept it. The point is well taken. but times have changed since 1959. Now Castle's studio furniture rubs shoulders with abstract expressionism in major museum collections. The Philadelphia Art Museum, for example, exhibits one of his works in its modern wing, next to classic modern paintings; and there's a "design" room nearby where one may also find especially striking teapots, motorcycle helmets, and other commonplace items.

So, is the distinction between fine art and craft a completely bogus one? Was there ever any good reason for making it in the first place? Here are some possible reasons for making the distinction. 1) Fine Art is art for art's sake. It is made to be viewed or experienced on its own, rather than serving some other purpose (e.g., providing seating, decorating tablecloths, or selling cars). 2) Fine Art is meant to communicate something, or it is the communication. By contrast, comercial art, craft and graphic design assist in the communication of somebody else's message.

Something else to think about: Fine Art, in the modern sense, hardly existed before the Renaissance, or even later. Prior to that time, painting, sculpture, drama, music, dance, and all the other arts were embedded in other social practices (church services, court activities, weddings, funerals, public celebrations, and the like). There were no museums or concert halls, nor were there any art critics in the modern sense. Artists were often anonymous. They made their "statements" in the process of making a commission, playing for a dance, decorating a cathedral. The division between fine art and craft, like that between fine and popular art, is a relatively recent one. does it represent progress? Decay? Just another possible social arrangement?

What do you think?

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