Thinking and making: art and craft in library of Congress Classification.

Author:Smith, Rochelle


Why are art and craft so widely separated in the Library of Congress Classification System? All classification schemes give insight into the worldviews of the time in which they were created, and library systems are especially illustrative of the cultures and cultural moments which shaped them. It is not difficult to locate examples of bias for example--based on race, ethnicity, gender- and nationality--in both Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and the Library of Congress system (LC), which dominate the field of classification in American public and academic libraries; many books and articles going back to the early 1970s have pointed out these concerns (Berman, Foskett, Webster). The library profession seems to have had fewer conversations about bias as it affects different subject disciplines, however, and the separation between the subjects of art and craft proves an apt site for such a discussion, which has been a persistent and contentious one in the art world through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century (Auther, Bernstein). The separation of art and craft in LC, in N and TT respectively, compared to their co-location in DDC and other American library classification systems, suggests divergent approaches to the arts within librarianship, allowing insight to American views on the relative definitions of art and craft from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries.


What exactly is the difference between art and craft? Immanuel Kant, in his 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment, plotted a boundary between the two that remains influential, asserting that "art is ... distinguished from handicraft: the first is called liberal, the second can also be called remunerative art. The first [art] is regarded as if it could turn out purposively (be successful) only as play, i.e., an occupation that is agreeable in itself; the second [craft] is regarded as labor, i.e., an occupation that is disagreeable (burdensome) in itself and is attractive only because of its effect (e.g., the remuneration), and hence as something that can be compulsorily imposed" (Kant 183). Elissa Auther offers a modern framing of Kant's idea, suggesting that "fine art ... is characterized by a self-sufficiency or 'purposiveness without a purpose, [whereas] craft by contrast is characterized by a connection to an interest or purpose" (Auther xv). Echoes of Kant can be heard in contemporary discussions of the differences between art and craft. As the director of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma explained in 2003, "Our artists are working with ideas. Glass is just a medium for their expression (Bernstein 114). The charge that "craft works within the sphere of the familiar whereas art strives for creativity" and "radical 'differentness'" leads to a value judgment, that art is therefore superior to craft (Fethe 131).

In western culture the borders of art and craft have fluctuated over time, and with every fluctuation there has been disagreement. In his 1993 article "Decorative Arts: A Problem in Classification," Steven Blake Shubert neatly outlines the history of this divide. Starting in ancient Greece and moving through the Middle Ages, Shubert shows that the distinction currently drawn between art and craft did not exist until quite recently: "what are now considered the visual arts (painting, drawing, sculpture etc.) were then considered crafts on the same level with weaving, ceramics, and woodworking. Likewise, in the medieval European universities the liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy) did not include any of the visual arts (Shubert 77). According to Charles Fethe, "there has been a number of historical periods, such as in the Middle Ages, in which painters and sculptors saw themselves as basically craftsmen, creating attractive objects used in the conduct of daily life" (Fethe 134). W.J.T. Mitchell echoes Shubert's point: "the elevation of painting to the status of fine art is generally traced to the Renaissance, when it began to compete successfully with poetry in the pecking order of artistic disciplines" (Mitchell 1024). At the time of the Renaissance, the image of the artist was transformed "from that of a skilled craftsman in a specialized practice into that of a universal genius whose work synthesizes poetry, philosophy, and the sciences" (Mitchell 1024). The concept of art as predominantly aesthetic or contemplative and craft as merely useful, with "decorative arts" as an intermediate category of "three-dimensional utilitarian objects with aesthetic merit" (Shubert 77) was unheard of before the seventeenth century. But by the nineteenth century the prestige of art had long been on the rise.

Library of Congress Classification

In 1897 the collections of the Library of Congress were moved into the newly constructed Thomas Jefferson building near the Capitol in Washington DC. Until that time, books were organized on the Library's shelves using a modification of the classification system used by Jefferson himself, to whom the core of the collection had originally belonged (LaMontagne 28). Jefferson had been guided in his approach to classification by Enlightenment thinkers like Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Francis Bacon, who felt that all human knowledge could be organized into a unified, connected taxonomic tree. This idea strongly influenced American library in 1876), and particularly Cutter's 1882 Expansive Classification system...

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