Mindful museums

Where manual and fine art meet
By Paul Epp
Paul Epp

I go to a lot of museums. I see it as professional development. I’m kind of in that business myself. I design things and I try to do a good job. Museums collect and display things that are done well and this sometimes includes my work, which is, of course, very gratifying and verifying.

So, I could say that museums inspire me and encourage me to do even better. And I like being in the company of people like myself, even though they probably only exist in the present by the record of the work that they did in the past.

Because I look at art as well as design, the museums I visit sometimes are identified as galleries, rather than museums. In these cases, they will likely only display what is now known as fine art. These artefacts are intended to only provide aesthetic or intellectual stimulation, rather than fulfill any useful function. It is noted that visual and cerebral stimulation can be a useful thing, but the distinction is usually clear. Note the word intellectual. It carries a lot of weight.

Useful things are produced through the exercise of the manual arts. Of course, painting and sculpture are produced manually too and at an earlier time, they were seen as trades and not glorified by the distinction fine. But now they are.

Some of the museums and galleries that I have visited have mixed things up a bit, and I enjoy that. There is sometimes a piece of furniture among the paintings, providing its own aesthetic and intellectual stimulation. And why not? Furniture can be a very demanding discipline and aesthetic accomplishment and not necessarily easier to create than painting a picture.

As well, furniture can provide a very instructive (intellectual) record of a period of time, reflecting a range of social and cultural values. Ceramics are also sometimes on display, and it is generally accepted that this manual art can be used to produce objects that are very aesthetically expressive.

The distinctions we employ today have not always been so clear. It was really only with the onset of industrialization that a distinction was drawn between fine and applied arts. The disciplines of painting and sculpture, primarily, were seen as useful skills that could be applied to the production of the useful things that industry was now so busy producing. Schools, like the precursor to OCAD University, were established with the aim of obtaining the most useful benefits of a training in art, whether it be fine or applied, although those terms were not necessarily used.

At the same time in the late nineteenth century that postsecondary art schools were being established, a program of manual training in some secondary schools was being initiated. This curriculum was intended to emphasize the benefits of tangible experience and actually doing things rather than restricting one’s education to thinking and talking.

But along the way, the manual training courses became vocational training and students were streamed into either academic- or trades-related courses. Because I did well academically, I chose that route, thinking that it would provide me with a better route off of the farm. But I was envious of some of the projects that some of the other students got to do. When I elected to go to a design school, I was actually counselled by the school against this choice, the argument being that with grades like mine, I did not have to go down a manual path.

A bias and hierarchy had been established that privileged the intellectual over the manual. The mind over the hands. Whereas at one time it was accepted that there were important benefits to developing both, now it seemed that manual development was for the losers. And to compound this view, the (manual/vocational) shops were removed from the secondary schools and replaced by computer labs.

So now we have a situation where the actual production of our goods is imperilled by the scarcity of workers that are willing to accept a career that employs the use of their hands. There are plenty of former students with PhDs in Philosophy (as only one example) that can’t find jobs while the wood industry (as another example) suffers from a lack of workers that are willing to choose this type of employment.

This is why I go to museums. They make me think about many different things.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.
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