The Passion of the Craft
Google search “craft” and you’ll get crafts for kids near the top position. No one disagrees that quilting, basket weaving, balloon animal making, flower pressing, bead working, or corn doll making are crafts – of course they are. There is, however, an age old dispute distinguishing art from craft. Craft often gets the bad rap, especially from self fashioned fine artists. Do we dare call Picasso or Pollack craftsmen? How about David Burne, Santiago Calatrava, or Steve Jobs?
Craftsmen have guilds. Master Craftsmen apprentice, gain skill and make money – or, at least they once did. The industrial revolution reduced many craftsmen to hobbyists, but that doesn’t change their awesome skill, only the income stream. If a craftsman no longer makes money do they involuntarily turn artist?
Social validators maintain that craft and art separate via intent: function or personal expression, profit or pure aesthetic. Make reproductions of art work, no matter how fine, they become product – the reproduction is transformed into craft that performs as art – confusing to say the least if you accept the premise. A Ming vase was designed to hold flowers, made rare by antiquity, magically becomes a work of art. When the two are bundled together as in “arts and crafts”, does kitsch over take the result by virtue of its label?
I occasionally ponder contemporary art that I simply don’t “get”. Feel the emotional void? The artist’s supplied blurb doesn’t help generate an emotional connection; it succeeds only at revealing the creator’s intent. Do artists keep the work’s significance obscure so they can dictate interpretation, or are they miserable failures at their craft? Chances are good they’d claim to be ahead of their time or too insightful for mass consumption.
Creativity is an ingenious mix of the familiar with the unexpected. Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee, in their book, On Intelligence, describe remarkable creativity as using uncommon past analogies to make uncommon future predictions. In other words, we combine previous experiences, knowledge, or thought patterns in imaginative ways to create new patterns that solve problems or shape artistic expression. We solve new problems using what we know worked and combine life experience with our understanding of the current challenge. Success creates new solutions that are pressed into service as past analogies the next time we’re challenged, hence skills are built.
With artistic endeavors, if too much “new” is introduced, it ceases to resonate with an audience. It’s as if we pull our audience along with a delicate string. Pull too hard and the connection breaks; too slack and attention is lost. Proceeding with a broken string makes for self indulgent artistic expression. True innovation breaks convention and violates predictions, but if shared unsuccessfully with fellow humans, otherwise significant creativity is either uniquely useless or massively self-indulgent. Craft is the connecting string.
To be skilled at a craft is not craftiness: i.e. adept in the use of subtlety and guile. The craftily skilled are not artistic fakers. Craft is what we see, hear, read, taste and feel about creativity. It’s the “Do” share of creativity. Craft is the vehicle of personal expression and innovation. Craft is what we hone in order to push our imagination out to the masses.
From Kitsch to Avant-Guard, craft is what connects us to the artist; it’s the difference between satisfying a challenge and indecipherable theories. High craftsmanship is rooted in human skill, expertise, dexterity, ability, and technique; machines can’t demonstrate craftsmanship. If machines produce high quality objects, it’s the result of fine machining by the innovative humans who created the process. Did you make an aesthetic decision in your crafting process? Then the outcome is art, aka – human expression. No decision? Then you’re a machine or an exceptionally good plagiarist.
Craft gets polished through building on patterns of a skill pyramid: simple early skills topped by highly developed sophisticated abilities honed through repetition. Once learned, the exceptionally gifted own the power to penetrate the sensations of others. They inspire awe and excitement. Their skill opens our emotional and intellectual receptors – we hunger and covet. Our souls play emotional hosts to admiration, envy, and eagerness to take part in the fine art or creative innovation demonstrated through extraordinary craft: an enrichment of the human spirit.
With audience receptors unlocked, artists and innovators are released to share their creativity. Creators at their skill peak report feeling emotion flow from each note of music played or every nuanced dance movement performed. Each fine stroke of a brush or every architectural detail designed makes a meaningful human connection. Remarkable craft is present in both the height of artistic expression and purposeful innovation. Fine craftsmanship is the mouthpiece of creativity.
The objects we call Art or Craft are members of a continual spectrum under the creativity banner. Odds-on, the most purposeful and predictable will be labeled “crafts”, while the most abstract and useless will not. Where do we put the fulcrum in this teeter-totter? Intuition may tell us, but it matters little unless you’re a government bureaucrat required to levy import duty, or an art dealer primed to cash in on the next Rembrandt.
It may also be a matter of context. Display objects heretofore perceived as crafts in an art museum, they cease to be useful and therefore perceived as art by virtue of surroundings. A rare Ming vase is no longer useful behind bulletproof glass. New York’s Museum of Modern Art is a renowned venue for the exhibition of artworks that were – or are – mass produced and purposeful. There seems to be no rule for which we can’t find an exception.
Why are “art objects” valued higher or fine artists held with greater esteem than those perceived as Crafts or Craftsmen? Exclusivity and purity I suspect. For the same reason art increases in value post mortem, objects perceived as crafts appear to be more easily reproducible. They often have a product-like appearance such as an unlimited edition photograph or a Charles Eames Chair.
What’s more, Artists claim a purity that is unaffected by profit or committee approval. Artistic “sell-outs” lose a piece of their soul [so I hear]. While profit motives can be problematic for artistic expression, I don’t believe it is the fulcrum of the creativity teeter-totter. Countless great artists and innovators respond to commission, and the galleries are full of art for profit.
Those who spawn what we label “art” or “craft” use the same creative essentials. Self designated artist or craftsman, approach personal expressions or innovations from different perspectives but achieve parallel results. Intensity of emotion, imagination, function or intent dictates the resulting perception. Uncommon creative passion is delivered through worthy craft; it’s the essential skill for successful transfer to an audience.
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