Tom Sutcliffe: How to craft art from decoration

The week in culture
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I found myself wondering about the status of the decorative the other day – not a concept that any artist would want attached to their work, I would have thought, but one that was impossible to hold at bay wandering around Collect 2010 – the Crafts Council's annual selling exhibition of "contemporary objects". A global survey of work in fine crafts, Collect 2010 is an odd hybrid of high-end bazaar and international exposition – and it provokes a number of questions. One of them was this: what are these objects for, exactly? And, before I'd gone very far into the show, I came up with a couple of dyspeptic answers. They are sponges for the absorption of disposable income, obviously – objects which have been put into the world to be bought. And they are plugs to fill a vacancy – either in their purchaser's sense of self-worth or in the expensive immaculately finished interior of their Chelsea apartment or Manhattan loft.

After I'd gone a little further into the show some of the dyspepsia eased, for reasons I'll come onto later but that was the way the knee jerked first. It was, at heart, a reflexive suspicion of decoration – a word which seemed to apply here in more senses than one. The buyers who could afford to shell out £12,000 on a ceramic knick-knack or £35,000 on a hand-made platinum necklace weren't just decorating their houses and their bodies in the conventional meaning of the world – they were also, it seemed to me, conferring a decoration, giving themselves a medal for the exquisite nature of their taste.

The odd thing is that pretty much the same thing could be said of most contemporary art shows, and yet ideas of utility or self-congratulation or aesthetic preciosity don't often come up in that setting. Nor is it usual to lean in, check the price tag, and think, "well I'd like it at a tenth of the money but at that price it's a bad joke". And that, I guess, is because craft remains the aquamarine of aesthetics – ambiguously poised on the spectrum between art and nicely made stuff. Some people insist it's blue (art), others are convinced it's green (nicely made stuff) – though the Crafts Council, I think it's fair to say are pushing heavily towards the blue end, occasionally rather implausibly.

That question of adornment still causes problems as well, though. Jewellery may sometimes be art (though I didn't see a lot here that would have justified that title) but art is surely more than jewellery – and there were an awful lot of things here that you might dismiss as brooches for houses. Exquisite, many of them, and admirable in their making too – but barred from a claim to high art by the sense that admiring them was the only thing to be done with them. They were destined for a plinth or an uplit alcove, and they spoke an over-familiar language of biomorphic romanticism, of seeds, pods, and weathered wood and stone. More to the point you suspected that some of these objects were taking shelter here, that what looked very much like art in this context would have been a good deal more exposed in a gallery that didn't have the word "craft" attached to its rubric.

What supplied the antacid, for me at least, were pieces that seemed to acknowledge that issue – in particular a gloriously repulsive set of ceramics by a maker called Carolein Smit, which included a flayed hare, standing upright with its skin draped around its haunches, and a skinned pug, glaring out at you from its puggy little face. They were beautifully made – hair and teeth and glistening raw muscle carefully crafted from stippled and extruded clay – and they seemed to confront the issue of decoration and preciousness head-on. "How about this as a conversation piece?", they asked; "what are you going to talk about now?". Skill – so self-regarding it almost amounts to a vice in some pieces – had here called itself into question in a way that sent you away with thoughts that hadn't been in your head before. Not, "ooh...isn't that lovely?", but, "how far will the idea of loveliness stretch before breaking?". They weren't alone – the glasswork of Steffan Dam also seems to hold craft's fascination with the biomorphic up to scientific analysis – but in their open contempt for the decorative they were among the few things here that were unmistakably blue.

A poetic spin on Wimbledon

Poetic traditionalists will presumably be pleased that Matt Harvey, a regular on Radio 4's Saturday Live, got the job of being Wimbledon's first-ever writer-in-residence. He frequently rhymes and scans, after all, which is only fitting for a sporting event of such regular rhythm and verse form (rhyming couplets, essentially, until one player breaks metre with a volley or a high lob). Harvey's first official Wimbledon poem, "Grandest of Slams", attempts (and fails) to find an exact rhyme for Wimbledon (his closest shots are probably "symbol than" and "dwindled in"). What I'm really interested to know, though, is how he hears the scansion of a long Centre Court rally. Is the basic unit a spondee (two equally stressed syllables giving the pock of the strings and the bounce of the ball) or a dactyl (a stressed syllable – the player grunt – followed by unstressed pock and bounce) or even an anapaest (pock-bounce-GRUNT)? I look forward to finding out whether Andy Murray plays in pentameter or alexandrines.

A welcome break from reality

Film has always been popular with surrealists from Un Chien Andalou onwards. But there's nothing quite like the rare moments when a broadly representational film abandons its grip on the real world and temporarily goes mad. There's a lovely example in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, in a scene in which a drug dealer's reluctantly departing soul is represented by a wildly spinning break-dancer. Strictly speaking there is a rationale for this vision. In the sequence in question Nicolas Cage has taken so much coke that his brain is fizzing like a Coke bottle stuffed with Mentos. But his delusion is presented so matter-of-factly – without framing distortions – that you temporarily wonder whether you've gone mad yourself. And "surreal" doesn't quite do it justice I think, given that the word has become so flabbily overused. I think we need to rehabilitate a word that would usually be pejorative in this context. It was gloriously arbitrary – a dictat from Herzog's wayward imagination that the audience has no choice but to obey.