Art vs Artifact

How I look at the context we use to interpret our objects at the Loveland Museum 2021

Sharon Carlisle’s installation at the Loveland Museum, Speaking to Water, January 21 through August 28, 2021, inspired a thoughtful dialog about Art vs Artifact that has influenced how I look at the context we use to interpret our objects at the Loveland Museum. The Museum exhibits both history and art allowing crossover interpretation to occur. The ability to use art as a form of interpretation in a history gallery is unique and makes visitors pause a moment longer to decide how they are reacting to a theme interpreted through an artist’s lens. This is, perhaps, a more emotional level of interpretation than the straightforward text describing events, materials, and use that usually accompanies a history exhibition. Using the artist’s viewpoint is more akin to storytelling. Allowing an artist to share their view of the world with the visitor. Sharon’s artwork utilizes the idea of art vs artifact. Her use of actual historic artifacts and themes as inspiration is evident.

An artifact can be defined as the product of skilled craftsmanship. Artifacts inform us about past events and about how previous cultures lived and built their communities. They are the evidence left behind by people living their lives. Art, by this definition, can also be an artifact.  What separates art from artifact is often the emotional and esthetic quality that reaches beyond the everyday use of the object. So, when does the artifact become art? Sharon Carlisle reaches a balance in her artwork between art and artifact. She discovers artifacts, such as the 1920 workbench featured in her Speaking to Water installation, and transforms them into art. Her artwork becomes an artifact of her own body of work. Used originally as a part of another installation, Tended Primitive Emergence, the table changes meaning as it is used in a different context to show the history of the development of The World Wide Water Project. This change from art to artifact does not mean that the element of art is removed from the piece.  It just gains additional meaning as the artwork moves through time into different spaces. 

The older the art work becomes, the more of an artifact it also becomes. Likewise, as an object moves through time, its context as an artifact becomes more valuable and creates an art-like quality to its interpretation. Think of an archaeologist digging through the layers of an ancient culture. Archaeologist find and assign cultural value and interest to the remnants of daily life. Even today, we produce so much disposable material culture. Broken handles or pots, scrap metal, and plastic. These are the things that future archaeologists will discover and will utilize to reconstruct our culture. Imagine assigning a value and meaning to a broken dinner plate. Will that plate become as elevated as a reconstructed Etruscan vase as time passes? 

Artwork and artifacts are also assigned value by the individual interacting with the object. An artifact placed in the right context has the potential to portray emotion and esthetic. Artifacts can be as inspiring to a viewer as artwork is meant to be. Artifact can be the basis or inspiration for an artist’s creation further elevating the value of the everyday material culture and blurring the line between what is the art and what is the artifact. It is hard to distinguish where the line between art and artifact should be drawn. The line, for me, is blurred more and more as I think of what I have collected for the Museum in traditional categories. Maybe it is not for me to designate what an object is but, rather, the object should speak for itself inspiring the viewer to make the decision depending on the lens in which they are looking.

Jennifer Cousino, Curator of History

Loveland Museum

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