Why is beauty never considered a function? — Ronald Rael
I came across this thought-provoking quote in the middle of a video about green technology. While the video shows the building blocks made from 3-D printers, it asks bigger questions. The most important one confronts artists and artisans alike: is it functional or is it “just” beautiful?
This particular question resonates with me because I grew up in a house full of art and craft. Dad took photos that he developed himself. Mom made pottery and took art classes. My sister drew and painted and I learned to sew and knit. Where the line between art and craft actually is has always been fuzzy in my mind and this idea of functionality versus beauty is tied to it.
Take my mom Jane Dunsmore, for example. She mostly made functional pottery to be sold at craft fairs. Treating her creative pursuit as a business meant she needed to make money. Common sense says that people are more likely to buy pottery they can use. Pottery that is “merely” pretty or decorative isn’t going to sell.
Fortunately, Mom has been able to break away from this mold. Today she makes sculpture and tiles, a far cry from the more prosaic and practical bowls, mugs, and plates she made in the past*.
I asked her how she was able to escape from the functional trap and two things came up: a change in mind-set and a change in materials. She needed both to make the change.
The mindset change came from a combination of things. When she retired from teaching, she returned to her pottery studio without the pressure to make money. Also, she was bored after years of showing students how to make round things on a wheel. She gave herself permission to make the things she wanted to and she started experimenting with free-standing forms.
Initially, she was frustrated. The shapes she was interested in didn’t work well in clay — they cracked, something every functional potter considers a fatal flaw.
Then she discovered paper clay (which is clay that contains anywhere from 5 to 25% paper pulp). Suddenly, she was able to make the shapes she’d always wanted to with little to no cracking. Paper clay opened the door to sculpture for her.
Occasionally, a piece still cracks, but now she sees it as part of the work instead of a flaw. Sometimes she fills the cracks with other materials, sometimes she leaves them alone. Letting go of perfectionism, as well as the expectation that everything she makes must sell, has freed her to make the work she wants to make. Her ceramics still have a function, but now it is usually beauty first.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserable each day
of what is found there.
— William Carlos Williams
Beauty is a function: for many people it is what makes something a work of art**. It’s also a key component of every craft there is. We knit and sew and embroider in order to make functional things in our lives beautiful as well.
While I love her bowls and mugs, Mom’s heart is much more obvious in her newer work. I’m glad she’s found her way past the artificial boundaries set in her path to work that treats beauty as a function.
*She still makes bowls and mugs from time to time, but how they look is much more important to her than how they work.
**Art historians, critics, and teachers have a much more complex definition of art but they are a pretty small part of the population.