Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology

I. Introduction

Howard Risatti’s excellent book, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, raises a number of thoughtful and pressing questions about the status of craft in relation to fine art, and indeed about the status of art as an object of culture and perception. Risatti’s goal is to answer the question “What is a craft object”—or at the very least to provide an art historical space in which the question can be meaningfully asked (xiii). The task is certainly not a simple one, and Risatti marshals an array of philosophers—principally Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer—whose theories he brings to bear on both our encounter with craft objects and our broader conception of the work of art. While Risatti’s investigation of craft through the lens of phenomenology and phenomenological hermeneutics certainly brings to light important questions about how art historians and cultural critics often approach craft objects, I believe that Risatti’s model of the craft object—and indeed of the craft object—is flawed.

In this essay, I want to examine the problems that I see as inherent to Risatti’s treatment of art and craft using the philosophers he chooses. In the first part of the essay, I will show how Risatti—in developing a model for encountering the craft object—essentially swings back and forth between a Kantian/Husserlian model and a Heideggerian/Gadamerian model. That is to say, he cannot seem to make up his mind between a radical post-aesthetic approach like that favored by Heidegger and Gadamer, and a more traditional approach based on the subject-object division, such as that of Kant or Husserl. The two most problematic ideas upon which Risatti bases his account are those of intentionality and aesthetic contemplation. Ultimately, while Risatti draws on what I will call a post-aesthetic account of the meaning of the craft object (in terms of the notion of understanding meaning as an event), he repeatedly falls into Kantian/Husserlian models when he attempts to pin down how we grasp the craft’s meaning. The primary reason for this confusion is that Risatti does not fully appreciate the radicality of Heidegger’s critique of the subject-object division and the a priori character of being.

In the second part of the essay, I would like to discuss how Risatti’s approach can suggest ways in which we might move beyond its shortcomings. I will show how Risatti’s model might change to reflect a more firmly Heideggerian/Gadamerian approach to the matter of craft. A Heideggerian model of phenomenological inquiry (as opposed to a Husserlian one) opens up a number of productive ways to consider the meaning of the craft object, particularly from the point of view of the craftsperson—a point of view that Risatti clearly feels is important. Finally, I will suggest the ways in which the works of certain contemporary thinkers of the Heideggerian school (such as Dreyfus and Kelly’s book All Things Shining) offer us a way of thinking about meaning that speaks to our encounter with art in general and especially with craft.

I would like to make one final point clear: in discussing the problems inherent in Risatti’s reading of the philosopher’s in question, I do not wish imply that the Kantian/Husserlain approach is “wrong” and that Risatti could “get things right” by switching completely to a Heideggerian/Gadamerian way of theorizing craft. Both approaches clearly have their own merits. Rather, I wish to show exactly how different the approaches are, and thus to demonstrate why Risatti fails to synthesize them and thus to arrive at a satisfactory answer to his question “What is a craft object?” Risatti’s failure reveals exactly what is at stake in comparing—and contrasting—these two radically different ways of conceiving of the work of art (or craft) and its meaning. My purpose is not to dismiss Risatti’s conclusions, but to argue how his account lays bare the difficult ground that faces contemporary art—and craft—theory and history.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

This essay will be continued in subsequent posts.

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