A long-time advocate of craft, Jane Burns wrote this letter to Sebastian Smee in response to his review:
Dear Sebastian Smee
Your manner of approach to the Transformations: Language of Craft exhibition review has prompted me to write to you. You say in the opening lines that it is not your role as art critic to pontificate on what is and what isn’t art and then you spend two and a half columns doing just that and allow yourself a couple of lines to dismiss Transformations: Language of Craft as ‘tasteless’.
My reaction as I read your piece was firstly to go along with your thesis – i.e. that nowadays it is not easy to distinguish art as such when traditional forms and new media are presented alongside each other as ‘important forms of artistic expression’. You had me agreeing with some sympathy with your explanation of your fear to make contribution to contemporary discussion of creativity without sufficient depth of knowledge of all art forms. But you then side stepped the ‘review’ role to give us your subjective opinion on the question of taste. And having made the case for good taste to be about predictability and conformity you seemed to apply this thesis to your review and to conclude that it was the clue to the heart of the Transformations exhibition. In your mind it didn’t conform. And it could not be art because art ‘should be surprising’. By this time I was irritated because I could predict your drift in relation to Transformations: Language of Craft, and yet you went further. You labelled it ‘tasteless’.
In hindsight I wonder if you see the illogicality of your reasoning in relation to this review. You virtually admit to not having read the catalogue essay by the curator, Robert Bell, when you say that you could not put the overall exhibition into any context and also you seem to show a remarkable arrogance in your assumption when you say of the works in the exhibition that “their reasons for being are concoted and unclear”. Your labelling the artists in the Transformations exhibition as “these new craft practitioners” was reference perhaps to your discomfort at not actually being able to place them in any context familiar to your own knowledge. I seem to remember however that when reviewing Ricky Swallow’s work in the Venice Biennale you had no problem in acknowledging he is a ‘sculptor’ and that the fact that he comes from a background of shark fishermen could have relevance in the carved wooden marine creatures which were the subject of his work shown at Venice in 2005.
I happened to be reading your article in the company of an eminent American writer and gallery director, Helen Drutt English, and I have to agree with her opinion that you were not actually reviewing the exhibition but rather you were using the coincidence of the two major exhibitions – Transformations: Language of Craft and the Gwyn Hanssen Pigott Retrospective at the NGV – to editorialise on your thoughts about taste. Am I right?
I applaud the context and opinion you were able to devote in the same review to the work of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott and it intrigues me to wonder if your opinion of Transformations: Language of Craft would have remained had you had benefit of discussion after viewing it with someone of the erudition and depth of knowledge of Helen Drutt English. Maybe you would like to correspond?