Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Is there a difference between art and craft?

I've just finished reading Emma Darwin's excellent novel, A Secret Alchemy and very much enjoyed it, perhaps even more so because it's not the kind of book I would normally read. If you give it a try it's important to persevere - I got a bit confused to begin with by a combination of multi-threading and a whole host of historical characters whose names meant little to me, but if you go with the flow and give the author a chance, it's well worth the effort.

One small segment in it particularly caught my eye: Craft is art made possible, I think suddenly: possible and functional. Art that feeds and clothes and houses. This really interested me. When I'm not taking a modern view of art (mostly worthless rubbish), I tend to the medieval, when the question with which I started this post was meaningless. Art was the output of artifice. It was anything man made as opposed to natural. So when on Top Gear a while ago they tried to present a car as art to a bunch of art professors, and the academics dismissed it because it had a function, I have, with my medieval hat on to shake my head sadly. Of course it's art. It hardly grew on a bush.

What's interesting if you do take the 'craft is art with a function' view, then it seems logical that art does not have a function. And maybe that's where art has gone so wrong in the last 100 years. It always used to have a function. Medieval art either did something practical, pleased the eye or was to the glory of God (or any combination of the three). Some modern 'art' does cover one or more of these functions but much of it doesn't. In reality, I would suggest, there are two categories of unnatural product. Not art and craft, but art and garbage. Both are made by human beings. One has a function, the other doesn't.

1 comment:

  1. Brian, I'm so glad you enjoyed A Secret Alchemy, and thank you for the mention.

    It seems to me that there are two, fundamentally different ways in which the art-craft opposition are used.

    On the one hand, culturally speaking, 'Art' is used for objects made by a person which have no practical function, and 'Craft' for things which are made by a person, perhaps to some degree by hand, but at least in theory could be used for something - well, useful. Art objects may have a spiritual/emotional/intellectual function, but they don't keep you warm or dry, or hold your food, or decorate the window frames of your house, or make the thing you drive around in look nicer. To that extent you could say that architecture is a craft, not an art. Ceramics is another creative activity which hovers on the borderline which we call the 'applied arts'. The crafts are things where function dominates, though the whole issue is confused by the question of medium, (just as in fiction the issue is confused by questions of genre) so that more of the world recognises that an oil painting is 'art', because as an object it's completely useless, than they do a carpet, because you could always use that to cover the floor, even if you prefer to hang it on a wall, and the medium and practical necessities, arguably, impose greater restrictions on the artistic possiblities (but then that's true of a sonnet, isn't it).

    The other way art-craft is used is to distinguish between the practical skills and techniques involved in creating something, and that 'other', that 'whatever it is', which means that the whole of a work of art is greater than the sum of its parts - craft, medium, subject. A propos this idea of 'art vs. craft', I had a dig and found that I wrote this a while back on my own blog, and I think it's what I believe:

    "Art is what you get when craft becomes the channel for an individual consciousness and personality, but it only comes about when that consciousness and personality can demand what they need of the craft."

    In other words, as creative artists we need craft before what we have to say can be said, and the better our craft, the better the art - the essential thing we have to express - will be heard/seen/felt.

    What's happened with modern visual art, it seems to me, is that, simultaneously, there's been a powerful sense that expression can use all sorts of media, not merely paint on canvas or marble or bronze (photography was an early beneficiary of this democritisation of media), and there's been a down-grading of straightforward craft skills: for good or ill, art students no longer spend a year copying plaster casts, and who am I, whose art is one which even a six-year-old can take part in, to say that other trainee artists should be so comprehensively bored for so long?

    There's also a recognition that the perception/experience of art - individual consciousness embodied in an object - lies as much in the viewer/reader's consciousness as in the artist's. Which is one reason why, however much I dislike the modish fetisisation of the visual arts at the moment (oh, for a novelist to earn what Damien Hurst does! Preferably me!) I love Tracey Emin's bed, because it speaks to me. Other people think it's garbage.

    Mark Haddon has argued that it's not a given that a work of art should appeal to the widest possible audience. Yes, if it does (says the author of A Curious Incident), that's fine. But another, equally valid possibility is that a work of art should speak extremely well and clearly to a relatively small group who are experienced in listening to it, or willing to try. And roll on the day when those who don't choose to be part of that group don't feel either inferior or furiously scornful, but just go and find something which they DO want to listen to.