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NOTES FROM THE FIELD

Arts And Crafts And Engineering

Summer 2000 | Volume 16 |  Issue 1

IN 1937 THE MATHEMATI cian Alan Turing laid the foundation for modern computer science by introducing the concept of a Turing machine. Such a device could do four things: make a mark on a strip of paper, erase a mark, and move the paper forward or backward. In theory, a digital computer program of any complexity can be broken down into equivalents of these four steps.

The concept has applications outside the world of computer science. The academic profession, for example, sometimes works like a gigantic Turing machine, with half its members penciling in boundaries between disciplines or ideas- science and technology, invention and discovery, high and low culture —while the other half just as busily erases them and both groups tug the debate in alternating directions. To outsiders this process of distinguishing between one field or area of inquiry and another may seem as important as deciding whether Certs is a candy mint or a breath mint.

Why good design is different from good technology, and why engineers are craftsmen but not vice versa

Two museum exhibits in New York City this spring confronted the same type of border dispute in disciplines related to technology. At the American Craft Museum, “Defining Craft” (which recently closed) used artifacts and quotations to take a shot at resolving the lexicographic problem that formed the exhibit’s title. In the end, to no one’s surprise, craft turned out to mean different things to different people.

The objects on display were impressively diverse: glassware, textiles, ceramics, cutlery, furniture, and many others. In these surroundings, so redolent of the forge and the workbench, it was disconcerting to come across the artist Judy Chicago’s pronouncement that “the use of the terms art and craft has been a pretext for discrimination between gender activities. If men did it, it was art. If women did it, it was craft .” Several other participants in the show revealed the same craving to feel scorned, complaining that their work is not considered worthy of display at art museums. Considering what does tend to be displayed at art museums these days, it’s probably just as well.

Perhaps the most telling comment in the exhibit was written in 1882 by William Morris, the English designer and poet: “Never forget the material you are working with. … the special limitations of the material should be a pleasure to you, not a hindrance.” With this bit of advice Morris neatly sums up what crafts are about. No modern airplane designer (except one serving the antiquarian market) would build a plane of wood if titanium was more efficient. Nor would a designer of sewage systems honor his forebears in the profession by using hollowed-out logs as pipes. To a craftsman, by contrast, the value of an object often has little or nothing to do with how well it works. Some items in the show were purely decorative, without even a gesture toward functionality, while others took the form of a bowl or a chair but will never hold salad or be sat on.

Farther uptown, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the first National Design Triennial is on view through August 6. The idea behind this exhibit is to create for modern design the same buzz that the Whitney Museum’s Biennial creates for modern art, though one hopes without that institution’s ever-more-futile attempts to shock New York’s dwindling bourgeoisie. To make sense of a collection of items united only by the vague notion of “design,” the Cooper-Hewitt’s curators have organized the exhibit by concepts: “fluid,” “physical,” “minimal,” “reclaimed,” and so on.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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