My Art Inferiority Complex
Art vs Craft
Art won the propaganda war over craft about 600 years ago. Around this time the arts differentiated themselves from artisans. Artists became famous and crafts began to decline in status. In Europe, rich Christians and the Church commissioned artists to paint religious scenes. The House of Medici provided funding for works by Leonardo de Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, among others. These people were funding painters, not blacksmiths.
Under this system of funding it was the artist who were regarded as special, not necessarily their work. Many of these artists were highly skilled, but they may have had contemporaries with similar abilities that weren't recognised until much later on. Van Gogh had to wait until he was dead before he sold a painting. Craftspeople couldn't afford to do that. Craftspeople had to rely solely on the strength of their products, as they themselves were often relatively anonymous.
The ‘Art vs Craft’ debate tends to get reduced to ‘art looks good but is kind of useless while craft is handy to have around but it’s emotionless and simplistic’. This is often the result because one side is trying to prove it’s better than the other. This is stupid. Art and craft have their own separate goals in mind. My complaint is that in our collective ideology, art is often compared to craft and considered to be superior. This is a love letter to craft, adding to the growing literature that craft is important and shouldn’t play second fiddle to art. Partly because craft made the violin art’s using.
For the sake of this article, I'm defining craft as things created to fulfil a utilitarian function. A teapot, shoes, a bicycle. Art as things created to evoke an emotional response. A painting, a sculpture, a film. Art and craft have a lot in common. However we humans like to put things into categories. We prefer 'or' to 'and'. This divide can feel like a false barrier, and there exist a whole host of items that fall into the ambiguous grey zone of something between art and craft. That said, creating clear definitions is extremely important. The magic of language, the ability to take a formless idea that exists only in our minds and breath life into it through words so it can, fully formed, enter the mind of another, is an amazing thing. An amazing thing that only works if words have meanings. In this context, saying ‘art or craft is whatever you want it to be’ really isn’t helpful.
I don't want people to think I'm trying to belittle the value of art. I'm not. I think art is extremely important. Good art opens our eyes to new ideas, it excites us and gets us feeling and thinking in new ways. We desperately need good art in our lives. What I'm trying to do here is raise the stature of craft. This is an essay praising the value of craft. Valuable in its own right.
Craft is not Art waiting to be born.
I hate it when people call craft 'art', as a complement. It conveys the impression that if only the craft is good enough it can be elevated to the venerated position of ‘art’. If we craftspeople work hard enough or put our hearts into our work we might one day be considered Artists. Oh to dare to dream.
Good art gets us to feel. It exists to evoke emotion and helps to evolve human consciousness. Craft is designed to make our day-to-day lives better. It’s importance is in a comfy sweater, your favourite coffee mug, the pen that glides across the page. Craft is at its best when it works. When a craft object works really well, it integrates itself seamlessly into our life. This seamless integration is part of the problem in raising the profile of craft. It quickly fades into the background. There’s the initial excitement of getting a handcrafted kitchen knife that effortlessly slices and dices. After a few ragouts and several pico del gallos, we’re used to the way it glides through tomatoes with ease. The facile cleaving of fruit no longer elicits the excitement it once did. Without being mindful of the importance of craft, it’s likely we won’t notice it again until it stops working. We value it without appreciating it.
Life just works better with good craft. We might only get a small pleasure from using good craft objects. But we have the potential to use them a lot. Our current culture has created a cult of the exotic. We’ve become conditioned to look for enjoyment only from things rare and difficult to access. Repetition is looked down on as boring. We’ve come to believe that if we get to experience something everyday, it can’t be significant.
Simple Pleasures From Simple Objects
In order to raise the status of craft in our current culture we have to highlight the importance of the little things in life. Craft makes the things we do everyday more enjoyable. It’s because we do these things everyday that we should take notice of them and the potential for enjoyment they bring.
It is important to allow the well made into our lives. Well made craft items function well. This makes the tasks they’re designed to fulfil more enjoyable. If a cooking spoon is comfortable to hold, does a great job of getting into the corners of your pot and is able to scrape the bottom just right, I guarantee that the person who made it spent a lot of time thinking about hands, pots, stirring technique and cooking. Their thoughtful effort makes your cooking experience more enjoyable. If you’re anything like me, you like to eat. It’s an activity I engage in several times a day. Which means a lot of cooking as eating Pringles straight out of the tube while standing over the sink loses it’s charm fairly quickly. If we own well made craft items that work well we would do well to consider the maker; the thought and effort they put into their work so we can scramble our eggs in an enjoyable manner. In this way, good craft not only makes tasks more enjoyable but it connects us to the people that made them.
Good craft items are practical, physical objects that can represent certain values or feelings. We are shaped by our environment, therefore we would do well to fill our homes with work that represents values we want to embody. For example, we might want to show our appreciation for the natural world - owning items crafted from natural fibres could help remind us of our connection to the living world. A person feeling downtrodden by modern life - it’s hectic rushing, cold technology and excessive precision - might be drawn to a handmade wooden bowl. As well as comfortably holding nourishing soup it is a balancing symbol of nature, the rustic and craft.
There are many daily activities we engage in that good craft can make more enjoyable. By taking the time to notice what works and what doesn’t in our lives we can consciously use good craft items to improve our day-to-day existence. Craft isn’t likely to deliver the lightening bolt of new ideas and emotion that art does. It’s more of a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day - simple, unobtrusive but greatly appreciated.