• Thursday, January 29th, 2009

I spent an enjoyable few hours last week at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Viewing thousands of years of exciting art is a great way for a woodworker, or any creative person, to exercise and sharpen the aesthetic sense. I imagine at least one or two motifs drifted into my brain, unbeknownst to me, as silent seeds to later germinate into a project idea. A bargain for a bit of lost shop time.

Though I do not make period furniture, it was inspiring to behold pieces by Seymour, Townsend, and their contemporaries. From the other side of the world, the MFA has a fabulous collection of old Chinese furniture, displayed in a beautiful, peaceful setting that is hard to leave. Woodworkers will particularly enjoy the permanent “Please Be Seated” program which consists of chairs and benches by modern masters distributed throughout the museum on which visitors are welcome to park their carcasses. Go ahead, have a seat on a Sam Maloof bench!

I could not avoid some perplexity as I stood in the 19th – 20th century American section where a Maloof chair and a Wendell Castle music stand sit peacefully below a Jackson Pollock piece of art hanging on the wall, his “Number 10, 1949“. Well, I suppose I should not criticize what I don’t understand, but I do know what I like. I guess if the chair had only three legs, rendering it functionally useless, and it made you wince, then it would be far more valuable as art. I don’t know, maybe I’m too hung up on beauty. I’m glad I’m a woodworker.

Visual high art often seems excessively marketed, valued, and analyzed. Contemporary fine woodworking, on the other hand, seems to suffer from a general lack of understanding and appreciation by a large portion of society, and is consequently usually undervalued.

There, I’ve done it, opened a whole can of worms.

Category: Ideas
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8 Responses

  1. 1
    Mike Holden 

    Yeah, in manufacturing we call that “selling the oink” – goes back to the pig farmer that claims the only thing on a pig I cant sell is the oink.
    Its the emperor’s new clothes – even though some of it has value. The only good thing is that as time goes by the chaff will be discarded, and only the wheat (stuff with value) will remain. Sturgeon’s law applies here: “90 percent of anything is crap”
    That which satisfies my soul is art, all else is a waste of my time.

  2. 2


    Thanks for the comment. The oink in Pollock’s “No.5, 1948” reportedly sold for $140 million in 2006.

    Hey, I’m gonna check my scrap pile…


  3. 3

    Okay, so the Pollack is not your taste. Does that mean it is not a high quality piece of art? Some people like classical music and others like rock. Each might not be able to appreciate the highest quality examples of the other’s musical genre, but should presumably be able to understand that quality can exist in both. The examples are myriad – beer drinkers versus wine drinkers versus scotch drinkers; sports fans versus opera fans, etc.

    I find it ironic that you admit you don’t understand abstract painting, but then in the next breath lament how society doesn’t understand or appreciate fine woodworking.

    What we all need to appreciate is quality in all things. Unfortunately it is not always easy to do – especially with the unfamiliar and even more so for the things that are not to one’s personal taste.

  4. 4


    Thanks for your comment, I appreciate the thoughtful contribution! I agree with your first and last paragraphs.

    I do not like the Pollack painting, as a matter of the sort of subjectivity you validate in your first paragraph. You raise the issue of quality. I did not comment on its quality within that style of painting; I will leave that to others. I acknowledge that there is quality abstract painting to be appreciated.

    Yes, I wish fine woodworking was more widely appreciated and valued more highly in our society. That has nothing to do with whether I understand abstract art. No one understands or cares for all genres of creativity, nor am I saying that should be so. Simply, I wish, not demand, that more folks esteemed fine woodworking. There is no irony there.


  5. 5

    Thanks for the reply, Rob.

    I don’t think I was clear.

    Taste, of course, is subjective, by definition. Quality, on the other hand, I would argue is objective – it is present whether any particular individual recognizes it or not. Time and comparison (to the best of each generation) are the judges – quality endures; it holds up – it is recognized and preserved by those who inform themselves enough to judge it across time. Art is not an exception.

    By the way, there are many collectors out there who value all things fine – all things of quality:

    Notice the art and furniture in this collector’s space. Indeed, note the floor even.

    Best regards,


  6. 6


    Thanks for the quality contributions. In agreement, I’d add that quality is at least partly based on style, or maybe “intention” is the better word there.

    As you may know, David Pye’s book The Nature and Art of Craftsmanship is a real head hurter that explores issues such as these, especially the chapter Quality in Workmanship.

    Thanks again.


  7. 7

    The consideration of art of different styles and qualities has always been a subject of interest to me. Now that I’m 58 years old, I’ve seen many styles of all kinds of things from music to clothes to furnture come and most of it go. I don’t question that all of these styles can be appreciated by various people, but I do wonder what it is about some things and some people that either attract them or repel them. Sort of like a show I saw on History Channel last night about what creates sex appeal in humans. They’ve gotten quite analytical about the variables like ratios of facial and body structure. In that case, they conclude that at least within a specific culture, some characteristics will resonate the same for most “normal” people. I guess if you did that kind of analysis on art, it would take a lot of fun and mystery out of it apart from the various ratios we already acknowledge.

  8. 8

    Thanks for the comment, Stan. I think the arts help us learn about ourselves.