I spent some time with Velvet in her corral today. It was drizzling too much to ride. These Silver Sebright Bantams are her companions.
It is amazing how they are put together. Speaking of dazzle camouflage, they are a bizarre mix of pattern, texture and color. These chickens have legs like lizards, a tail like a bunny, and the body of a dalmation. Sebrights are the result of one man’s quest for an ornamental chicken. His success came with some compromise. These chickens have no meat value and lay only tiny white inedible eggs. This information led me to ask, is a chicken bred for aesthetic value as significant to the world as a chicken bred for food? I wonder how much significance function plays in the work I’m making. How much does it matter that the rectangle I crochet is long and narrow enough to be used as a scarf? Or wide enough to be a blanket? Could I offer Sebright rectangles at the next GFKAS show? Would that devalue the work?
The first house we bought was a fairly typical middle class Victorian built in 1902. I learned a lot about the era’s passion for superfluous decoration during the restoration process. I stuck to the philosophy as much as I could. We painted the walls in bright pinks and blues, we hung heavy velvet drapes on the windows, and Robert’s grandfather even hand-turned hundreds of spandrels to ornament the wrap-around porch. Then we moved to the California craftsman bungalow, built for and lived in by a Pasadena dentist in 1914. My research into its history taught me that when it was built, Stickley and other arts and crafts enthusiasts were promoting creative expression within the boundaries of simplicity. The “Craftsman ideal sought to end the division between the creativity of spirit and the reality of the material world.” The house was made of simple lines, all native wood species, and crafted with the imperfections of ordinary builders, not journeymen carpenters. I adopted this new ideal with a passion. Intellectually supported by my introduction to Andrea’s work and the smockshop project, I applied the ideas of personal expression using traditional techniques. My work went from oil paintings and wall hung quilts to functional garments. I got rid of everything I could and kept only what was necessary and beautiful.
I noticed that it was harder for people to identify with these ideas when I talked about my focus on “less is more”. Our culture was in the midst of a new Victorian era at the time. Everyone was excited about bling. The real estate market was booming, people had easy access to credit, and more-more-more was the prevailing attitude. Maybe this Great Recession has forced a new revolution in our culture. Maybe the new economy will bring us back to the pastoral ideals – not so different from the craftsman message to the middle class.
It’s no surprise to me that Silver Sebrights were developed during the 19th century. They are a product of their time. I’m sure if I look I’d be able to find some well-financed peacocks from the mid 2000s but it’s hard to imagine anyone financing ornamental chickens today.
Speaking of ornamental chickens and non-functional art, we’ve noticed a change at the shows. People aren’t as interested in supporting art without merit. They certainly aren’t willing to pay more for ornaments only. They want to know about the object as art, the artist behind the object, and the ultimate purpose of their purchase. I spend more time talking about Andrea’s work and the foundation of the rectangle process than the actual object itself. It’s different from a craft fair. Objects at a craft fair need to speak for themselves, either they work or they don’t work, either the craftsmanship is acceptable or it isn’t. GFKAS objects almost never speak for themselves. You can’t deduce anything about their function or their place in the artist’s work as a whole without engaging in some kind of dialogue with the panelist. Not only that, I always remind buyers that their purchase makes them a part of the GFKAS project, a finite endeavor, so they should keep their tag.
This ornamental chicken question can really be reduced to one of my most often discussed questions: what exactly is the difference between art and craft? For now, I’ve concluded that art has a history, a question, an idea or statement. Art is an experiment or exploration of materials or theories.
The real question is, what does that mean for the Silver Sebright chickens? Craft? Or fine art?