If I Had a Hammer

For years I’ve had a backlog of columns to post. There were times I had several months worth. The backlog is used up. And I’m starting to repeat myself. Even if there are new specifics to bring up, or slightly different perspectives to feature, the general points, the important ones, have been made. Hammering the same subjects is no longer interesting. There are plenty of articles in the archives that haven’t an expiration date. If you find these posts informative, ringing a bell in your head; or aggravating, singing a discordance song in your ear, consider whistling through the archives for a variety of thoughts on art, audio, freedom and justice.

The next bell to ring is an old one. Instead of posting words to read and warnings of danger, I’ll be featuring images—songs of vision, songs of singing, songs of morning and evening, songs of inspiration—

In ancient Rome, the museum was a shrine dedicated to the muses, nine goddesses who embodied creative inspiration.

Each muse has her own domain, Epic poetry (Caliope), Love Poetry (Erato), Lyric poetry/music (Euterpe), Hymn (Polyhymnia), Tragedy (Melpomene), Comedy (Thalia), Dance (Terpichore), History (Clio)), and Astronomy (Urania). Note that they are not limited to the fine arts. One inspires the humanities, another, science, and most are concerned with literature. Conspicuously missing is a muse or two for the visual arts, painting and sculpture. Were these endeavors less valued in ancient Greece and Rome than they are today? Sculpture appears to have been very important to the ancients. They had a deity for artisans & sculptures : Hephaestus. Hephaestus, however, is a god. He had to be excluded from the group of muses—only woman can inspire. Why the sexism? The ancients were not known for their sexual parity. But perhaps sculpting was too heavy-duty, too physical to be muse-able, and painting too unimportant, too unintellectual. Or maybe, painting and sculpture were mere crafts unworthy of inspiration. If painting were only a low status decorative art, a simple craft for simple craftsmen, then we’ve made a hard turn since then. Or we’ve elevated a vulgar vocational trade into high flying sacred act of genius. Visual artists will cringe at the suggestion that their work is merely craft. The disagreements around art vs craft, expression vs decoration, idealism vs utilitarianism, evocative/provocative vs attractive/functional continue. If art is merely an elevated craft, the question is, where’s the dividing line? If art and craft are completely discreet animals, it may explain the direction of contemporary art.

From these questions I thought I should get some other views on the distinction between art and craft. After reading several opinions, all of which are fairly equally confident in their position, and assertive that their opinion draws a line in the sand. Since all are making similar destinctions, I settled on one to use as an example. It starts as follows.

. . . But the fact is that art is different from the craft in a sense that art is a creative merit that comes from within. On the contrary, the craft is skilled work, wherein there is an application of technique, that people learn through much practice. Next, art emerges from the heart, whereas craft comes from the mind. Here, in the given article, you may find all the important differences between art and craft, so have a glance.

This source provided a chart for easy contrast. It uses eight points to distinguish art from craft.

  • Meaning— Art is an “unstructured and boundless form of work that expresses emotions, feelings and vision. Craft refers to an activity which involves creation of tangible objects with the use of hands and brain.”

“Unstructured and boundless,” I am impressed already, even without the expression of emotions, feelings (as opposed to emotions?) and vision (hallucinatory vision? miraculous vision? chemically induced vision?). However, if it’s a tangible object, made by hand (fortunately controlled by a brain) it’s only craft. This is just the beginning.

  • Basis—Art is based on creative merit, whereas craft is learned skills and technique.

In the “meaning” section, craft “involves creation.” But, now we find, the creation of craft hasn’t any creative merit—that only pertains to art. Pay particular attention to the fact that art requires no learned skills or technique, that’s for craft. So far, I’m not much closer to a clear definition of either, but I’m getting a few clues that art is a rather amorphous thingy that can’t be compared to craft. Moving on.

  • Purpose—Art has an aesthetic purpose, craft is decorative or functional.

There’s no need to bore you with a dictionary definition of aesthetic. But here, our enlightened illuminator is essentially saying, “Art is pretty; craft is ugly, but decorative.” Okay, decoration is often pretty ugly. BuI bet you can say that about real art, too. We continue with emphasis.

  • Emphasizes—Art stresses ideas, feelings and visual qualities, while craft is about the “right use of tools and materials.”

Again, craft takes training, learning, skill applied to its creative ends, art is about ideas (without involving the brain), and feelings, and visual qualities. Craft is decoration without visual qualities. I am getting closer to understanding. But so far we’ve only considered qualifiers—now we’ll go past the veggie fluff and get into the meaty stuff : quantifiers.

  • Quantification—Art is difficult, craft is easy.

Okay, now you’re thinking I’ve cherry-picked the example. I’ve chosen the author most obviously blinded by a high art/low craft bias of the bunch. That is admitted, and, but I’ve also chosen one which came up in the top ten ooogle search results, and the one that also came up, word for word, on another page at a different URL. (That’s curious, no?) Since difficult & easy are in no way measurable, and therefore not quantifiable, this distinction is fatuous. The argument is falling apart, and we should probably discount the whole. As mentioned previously, though, other points made are concordant with other sources.

  • Reproducibility—Art is one-of-a-kind unique, craft is reproducible.

This one needs closer inspection. We tend to think of a piece of art as unique. There’s only one La Giaconda. Crafts can be made in the hundreds, thousands. A potter can make many mugs of the same size and shape and color. However, every handmade mug is a little bit different, no two are exactly alike. Then consider, the more famous an artist, the more likely someone has copied their style, not infrequently to the point of fooling the experts. In either case, any art can be reproduced, imitated, and copied in any number of ways. So much for unique and irreproducible.

  • Emergence—Art emerges from the heart and soul, craft from the mind.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. The more the author tries to convince me that he/she has the answer to the art vs craft question, the more it gets blurred with silliness. Don’t tell a quilt maker that quilting hasn’t any heart ‘n’ soul. And try telling the next artist you meet that real art doesn’t require any brains.

  • The result of—Art is the result of innate talent, craft comes from skill and experience.

I guess by now any comment I make is beating, with the right use of tools, a dead horse. The author of this drivel has painted him/herself into a heartfelt corner. It wasn’t easy. It was deeply mindless while stressing emotional ideas. It took talent to avoid any signs of skill, experience, or learning. That’s one crafty art. Every definition used for art could be assigned to craft and vice versa. The distinctions are arbitrary and, best of all, demeaning to art.

Setting this admittedly grotesque example aside, the others, while more literate and sometimes less hard-nosed, still ended up spinning their definition in circles, contradicting themselves, and in the end, actually demonstrating that craft and art are more similar than different. Clearly it’s a fuzzy, wavy, twisty, idiosyncratic, imaginary line. Clearly the word “art” is nearly meaningless. Clearly art and craft are not as inseparable as some would like to believe. One thing is definite, art without craft is bunk.

sculptures by Michelangelo, Accademia, Firenze

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