Art Versus Craft
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Art Versus Craft Monday, October 12, 1998
Some recent discussions of the role of tools in the hands of craftsmen versus artists sparked some thoughts on this subject. These thoughts are theoretical but I can claim a little practical foundation in that I once made a precarious living for a few years as a "fine" artist (oils, watercolors, mixed media drawings, wood sculpture, scrimshaw, and whatever else came to hand in a pinch). My own work was "traditional" in the sense that I have always disliked postmodernism, yet at the same time I have been grimly fascinated by the sophistication of some postmodernist works and have spent many hours examining various works of Pollock, Rauschenberg, Rothko, Johns and the rest in books and at museums and shows.

Some observations/opinions

The respective activities of art and craft differ in kind, not degree. Yet the one cannot exist without the other. Art takes a new thing of the mind and proposes that it have a life in the world; craft takes this created thing from the mental realm and reproduces it in the world. In this sense the definition of the artist as "one who can take any material and use any instrument to add something to the world that hadn't been there before" seems closest to the truth of the matter. But practically speaking it is impossible that the craftsman and artist should not inhabit the same carcass, and I would argue that when they do not, artistic creations don't "work". There is an obvious exception to this in world of science and engineering, in which the production of art in the sense I mean it here may require many highly specialized crafts working in concert to reproduce the artifact. But though many separate carcasses may here be involved, the principle still holds that art requires craft to see the light of day.

The life of a work of art in the world (whether it is a cerebral/emotional creation such as a novel or a mechanical device such as an automobile) depends on how well it "works." The question of whether a work of art "works" or not can be anticipated but not ultimately determined by the artist. This is because the relation between an artist and her creation is subjective but the relation between the creation and the rest of the world is objective.

The extent of a creation's objective relations with the world is the measure of how well it "works." This may or may not be wholly in accordance with the design of the artist. In the case of a painting, an artist may wish to obtain a certain emotional response through the work and craft the work with that in mind. This "certain emotional response" may be elicited by what the artist knows to be well-known social conventions that, as it may turn out, completely go out of fashion twenty years after the painting is finished. Yet the work may continue to be avidly sought by observers over the centuries because those same conventions, in combination with other aspects of the painting, elicit more universal emotional responses that were beyond the immediate intent of the artist but nevertheless are objectively conveyed by her work.

Craft is therefore the primary means by which an artist objectifies her creations. It cannot really be separated from art yet one can be a decent craftsman without being an artist, by receiving ideas from others and efficiently carrying them out. It is less easy for an artist to do without craft because if her craft is not equal to her art, her art cannot be executed according to her intention.

The harmony of art and craft presupposes that the artist wishes to communicate something to the world. This is a valid supposition in nearly all world art of any period, but is not often true of postmodernism. The tendency of postmodernist art has been to reject communication in favor of unconditioned expression. This tendency regards craft as a necessary evil because it imposes unwanted conditions on the artist's expression.

This rejection of craft in nearly all of its traditional forms has almost amounted to a religion among postmodernists. It has led to some curious side effects. The first and most significant is the seeming disappearance of disciplined crafts in the curricula of schools and universities in favor of free "creative" expression. This procrustian bed theoretically allows everyone to be an artist by soft pedaling the elements of purpose and design, through which discipline the talented might be forced to learn techniques, which might in turn lead to virtuosity. The second is an increased reliance on external cues to give meaning to works that are otherwise meaningless or incomprehensible. This has resulted in a large body of interpretive and critical literature that is every bit as free-wheeling as its subject, but which provides a certain context that the works themselves, being almost entirely subjective, cannot provide.

The "machine art" of fractals and cellular automata does not threaten to eliminate art; on the contrary it has extended its means. What it has done is to replace the hand of the craftsman with algorithms and computer displays, which are as yet comparatively poor and limited interpreters of the imagination that results in art. Modernism and postmodernism on the other hand, insofar as they became frustrated and bored with their increasingly pathetic art and so turned to dwell on the artist in his romantic costume, have simply committed suicide as movements, not killed the arts and crafts in general.

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