Monday, June 01, 2009
Arts and Crafts
I just read that Sam Maloof has died, at the age of 93. A woodworker, Maloof famously refused to identify himsef as an artist and insisted that his rocking chairs were to be rocked and his cribs were for babies to sleep in, not just striking objects to look at but exquisite surfaces to touch and be put to use. He was part of a Southern Californian crafts scene that, to my mind, included people like the ceramicist Paul Soldner (Soldner was a neighbor when I was a kid, with a stone house like ours in Russian Village on the Claremont/Montclair border; Maloof lived in Alta Loma, not so far away) as well as countless others working in niches between the ornamental and the practical that California seemed to have always attracted like a magnet.
I don't think it's much of a stretch to also associate a number of west coast musicians with these craftsmen — Lou Harrison and Harry Partch and Erv Wilson, certainly, but also John Cage, for all of whom craftmanship (in notation or instrument building, for example) was important, as well as the inventive use of found materials, and were never narrowly constrained by the conventional and narrow definitions of their professional disciplines, but rather an attitude that any interesting line of work could be pursued, DIY. Moreover these musicians seemlessly incorporated craft elements into their work in contrast to the way in which a Schoenberg kept his hobbies (designing playing cards or a cardboard violin) at home or Hindemith identified the craft of composition with a guild-like professional compentency.
There is a well-known and rather formal art historical term, Arts and Crafts, that identifies a movement in architecture and the decorative arts that, with probable roots in the English movement of the same name, flowered in California and further up the west coast. Facing the Pacific, Asian models were as important as those from Europe, and the European models as often as not were filtered through the Spanish and Mexican colonial/mission era. I can remember, in the 60's, visiting the homes of various elderly relatives, all of which exhibited mixtures of architecture, furniture, decor, and objects which comfortably incorporated all of these influences. My great grandmother's place in Paso Robles was a white-plastered, red tile-roofed adobe bungalow, where persian rugs inside looked up at wrought iron Mexican lamps, and dinner was served on real blue china from China, the model for her garden was, despite the hot climate, an English one with Japanese-inspired touches. The movement was never exclusive to professional artists. That house and garden in Paso Robles was sketched on by the owner-builder on butcher paper and later on had hand-made lace, stained glass windows, and wallpapers to accompany the purchased items. Russian Village was only one of several complexes in Southern California with houses made from rocks, salvaged slabs of flood-wrecked concrete pavement and any other bits of thrown-away but still usable material. (The famous Watts Towers are a close sculptural relation of these houses). The movement reached outward and downward: a standard field of instruction in public schools was "arts and crafts" rather than the traditional fine arts trio of drawing, painting and sculpture. John Cage's mother, for a time, owed an Arts and Crafts store in LA, selling materials to home hobbyists; his engagement with graphic design and, later in life, with printmaking mixed the seriousness of someone who know the mainstream world of modern art well with the play of someone who was willing to try it himself. I also think that there's an obvious straight line to be drawn from Cage's can-do music education experiments with his Aunt Pheobe and in WPA projects to his music for percussion and the prepared piano.
Lou Harrison will always be a professional role model for me: if he needed a particular instrument, he had it built or built it himself. (A friend once quipped that "with every step forward in technology, Lou was apt to take two steps backward".*) Two of Lou's own role models were William Morris and Arnold Dolmetsch, direct connections to that other Arts and Crafts movement. His calligraphy was of a different aesthetic than Cage's, connected to older historical models (Morris especially) than Cage's more strictly modernist influences (i.e. Maholy-Nagy), but both had manuscript hands that were attractive, legible, and immediately identifiable as their own, impulses that go at some odds with the emphasis elsewhere on a more uniform professional copying style.
* That same friend predicted that Lou would soon be making his own paper, but Lou actually became a serious advocate of non-tree papers and it was Cage who would incorporate his own paper (with ingredients including kitchen scraps) in his visual art works. Lou was also not-entirely-so-backward with regard to technology. With Carter Scholz, he devised several sets of computer fonts based on his calligraphy, which are now available from Frog Peak Music.