The Art of Craft (or the Trouble with Terminology): Part I
~by Jenn Craft and Anna Blanch
Wes Vander Lugt and James McCullough’s post on The Craft of Art and all the comments that followed inspired us to think and write about the relationship of “art” and “craft” from a slightly different perspective. It is important to note, though it seems almost rhetorical, that there are a number of different senses of the term “craft.” Like Howard Becker says,
“As folk terms, ‘art’ and ‘craft’ refer to ambiguous conglomerations of organizational and stylistic traits and thus cannot be used as unequivocally as we would want to use them if they were scientific or critical concepts.”
Despite this terminological morass, it is reasonable to suggest that craft is often subsumed into the world of art or placed below it somehow. Indeed, “Craft(s)” have often been the maligned as the ugly sister of Art. Instead of quality judgments about the way in which an object or the execution of an artistic style have been realised in a work/piece, that which is made by a craftsman for a primary aim of financial gain has at times been treated with disdain by those that write about the arts, especially where the work is not easily identifiable as falling within a particularl spectrum in the tradition of the visual arts.
Yet, the skill and craftsmanship of artists who have built some of the most well-used objects in our homes, institutional buildings and churches, is no less than those of the artists that have made the pieces that often hang on their walls. But the high-low discussion is somewhat obscurative in thinking through what constitutes Art from the perspective of the craft of the Artist, no matter their materials or tradition. And regardless of any use of craft as a dismissive label to denote something less than an Art object, the time taken by an artist (of any stripe) to develop their craft – in the sense of their skills, their aesthetic eye and style – is rarely if ever wasted.
So we have craft conflated to just another, albeit slightly broader, version of art, or craft as something lesser than art. This post (in two parts) is an attempt to navigate (and possibly avoid) these two extremes that both seem to favor art. As Bruce Herman reasons in his comments to The Craft of Art article:
So much of what we’re given in art, post-WWI, shows evidence of the rupture of the two. Those inclined toward fine craft have tended to shy away from “modern art”, and those inclined toward the conceptual turn have tended to de-emphasize craft, often to an absurd degree. But what is apparent all round is the confusion — confusion over what is fitting, what is truly meaning-filled, what is beautiful and enobling.
Herman went on to suggest there that the ideas of Etienne Gilson where art is a mode of being completely side-step any discussion of definition, where the value is in the act of making before and even in primacy over any finished work. That is,
If art is a mode of being (which of course takes up techne, knowledge, language, communication, etc) then opposing or trying to evaluate the relative merits of craft vs art becomes meaningless.
In light of the abiding theories of art prevalent in modern society, however, we contend that it may be fruitful to consider a theory of craft that seeks to avoid some of the usual definitional and terminological pitfalls. That is, a theory of craft that suggests craft is something slightly different, but no less valuable, than art: a theory which also privileges the process of making as a fundamental aspect, but does not do so at the expense of the finished work. While the art/craft dichotomy is problematic in a myriad of ways, it is difficult to eschew completely a system so built into the modern mind. For this reason, a theory of craft might be just what is needed to navigate the relationship and boundaries between art and craft. In part 2 of this post (published on Friday), we’ll engage with that theory more closely and examine what craft is, what it does, and what relationship it has to our understanding of art.
Image Credit: Troyes by Gustave Lancelot (French, 1830-1906) held by Cornell University Library (used with Permission)