The Craft of Art
~by James McCullough and Wes Vander Lugt
A few weeks ago, we launched a conversation on this blog about a definition of art. It is a project that emerges directly out of our teaching experience in the intersection of theology, ministry, and the arts. When interacting with people about the arts in non-academic settings, we have found that discussions quickly gravitate toward evaluations of art based on either personal meaningfulness or the classic, moralistic trinity: Language, Sex and Violence. In order to facilitate a more compelling and authentic encounter with art, we have found it important first to provide an understanding of art that was both heuristically simple while accurately describing what we encounter when engaging with art.
We suggested that art is fundamentally an exercise in communication involving three dimensions—craft, content, and context—and proposed a model that illustrated this dynamic. Based on feedback we received regarding our original model, we revised the visual to show craft, content, and context as three essential strands of art, inseparable yet distinct, as follows:
Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.
Even apart from its context in the play, we sense the sarcasm and overstatement, both about modern art and wickerwork picnic baskets. But the point remains: art is making something with both imagination and skill or craft. “Craft” is derived from the Greek techne, and refers to the actual process by which a “made thing” (a classic definition of art) is produced. Craftsmanship, therefore, is a disciplined, acquired skill that requires practice and is generally subject to the appraisal of those who know the craft: the “guild.” One essential strand of art, therefore, is the craft or skill of effectively producing or performing a particular work.
In addition, all art communicates in a particular way unique to that art form. Consequently, a large part of engaging with art is learning to understand the particular way an art work is communicating, whether through rhythm and rhyme, melody and timbre, movement and gesture, line and colour, or shape and form. Craft involves the effective usage and manipulation of these styles of communication. Great artists are great communicators in the language of their craft. Focusing on the strand of craft, therefore, serves the following objectives:
- Identifying craft as an essential strand of art enables us to limit the boundaries or what counts as art. Art is not simply anything we choose to call art, but something that is constituted by craft.
- Focusing on craft provides a means to engage with art on the level of skill and style. We do not intend to jettison emotional, visceral, or subjective responses to art, but do insist there is room for “informed opinion” about artistic craft, because art communicates something in a particular style with particular skills to an audience.
- Emphasizing craft enables us to adjudicate between the decorative-functional and the expressive-communicative. A work of art may revel in decorative gestures, but this does not prelude the presence of communication. This distinction may be blurred, but in general, art emerges through any act of crafted communication.
But where there is no craft, there is no art, or so we maintain. Imagination without craft gives us…well, gives us something less than art.