What is craft? How is it different from fine art or design? In his numerous journal articles, catalog essays, and books on contemporary theory in fine art and craft, writer and scholar Howard Risatti has elevated public and academic understanding of craft in contemporary society. With a background in mechanical engineering, degrees in music, and a PhD in art history, Risatti, 78, served as chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies from 2001 to 2005 at Virginia Commonwealth University, where today he’s emeritus professor of contemporary art and critical theory in the Department of Art History.
In his best-known book, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, Risatti compares handmade ceramics, glass, metalwork, weaving, and furniture to painting, sculpture, photography, and machine-made design, from Bauhaus to the Memphis Group. Craft, he argues, uniquely integrates function with a profound aesthetic expression of human values that transcend time and culture. He also emphasizes the need for craft to articulate a role for itself in contemporary society.
“. . . what the craftsperson does is manipulate the function of the object for aesthetic purposes.”
Risatti has co-curated exhibitions including Art & Artifice (James Madison University); VA Made: Meditation Across Media (Branch Museum of Architecture and Design); and Ambiguity and Interface (Taubman Museum of Art). He’s contributed to many journals, including New Art Examiner, Art Journal, Artforum, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Winterthur Portfolio, and Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts.
Ecumenical in his subject matter, Risatti has written on jewelry, baskets, cinerary urns, and ceramics. “I’ve always thought the idea of function was essential to craft,” he says. “So, what the craftsperson does is manipulate the function of the object for aesthetic purposes. How you make the object that’s still functional has something to do with aesthetics, and that’s a way of connecting to the idea of art. That’s what struck me.” And that’s the theoretical conundrum Risatti has investigated throughout his career, to the benefit of craft.
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