Thursday, 28 November 2013

Craft or art....?

I was reading on Jarrod Stonedahl's blog today, where he talks about what he does in terms of whether it is art or craft and the nature of those two terms. It is a question I have heard raised before and one I will hear again, I am sure. Others have added their thoughts - Peter Follansbee, Robin Wood, to name but two. It made me think, and I enjoyed the process of thinking - it's not something I get to do as often as I'd like. I began to write my thoughts down with the intention of posting them as a comment on Jarrod's blog, but when I tried to cut and paste it in I had exceeded the allowed character count, so thought I would put them on here instead.

Please don't think that I think I am some kind of oracle and have the definitive answer to this question - I don't and what follows are just my thoughts and musings. Indeed, I really don't think there is a definitive answer and anyone who thinks they have it is just kidding themselves.

The debate between art and craft is largely a question of semantics. Language is not objective nor transparent, and meaning not fixed or self evident. You can no more proscribe the meaning or definition of a word than you can stop it changing and evolving. If this were not so, then there would be no Oxford English Dictionary – or any other etymological dictionary for that matter. When I was studying grammar at university, the subject was dominated by the eternal wrangle between those traditionalists and fuddy-duddies who wished to proscribe grammatical usage, saying that one way of speaking was inherently ‘right’ (always their own way, incidentally) whilst another was inherently ‘wrong’, and those who believed grammar was a functional tool to aid and support clear communication, that the way people spoke and wrote was correct as it reflected popular and contemporary usage. Is grammar there to school people to talk correctly, or is it there to describe actual speech? Similarly, should language constrain us or serve us? Do I have to keep harking back to antiquated definitions in order to define myself or my craft? Not if I don’t want to – what I make is what I make and no amount of labelling or defining it can change it one bit (nor improve it, unfortunately).

As a teacher who teaches poetry, I have to tell my students that there are no rules to what constitutes a poem, other than, perhaps, some vague notion of poetic subject matter. That’s not to say there never were rules to writing poetry, of course there were throughout history and across cultures and nationalities, but an Elizabethan sonneteer cannot tell Ogden Nash his writing was not poetry because it did not match his own definition of a poem. A writer of quintains cannot deny Homer’s epics are poetry because he used more than five lines.

When I talk with my students about race and the names we use to describe them, I try to explain that it is not for us, of one race or nationality, to choose the label to impose upon another – it is their right and there’s alone. It would be wrong for me to call Native Americans ‘Red Indians’ because that is the convention where I come from, if they would call themselves Native Americans. Equally, it would be wrong for me to call them ‘Native Americans’ if they would rather be known as First Nations.

I guess what I am trying to say is, who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to call someone an artist just because that is my opinion when they would call themselves a craftsman; or for me to call them a craftsman if they prefer the title artist? Who am I to say what someone has produced is art, if they say it is craft, and vice versa? You asked is the body design of a car art? If the guy designing it says it’s art, then who am I to argue with him. When Damian Hurst stuck half a cow in a glass box and said it was art, there were a lot of wealthy impresarios who were falling over themselves to agree with him. Personally, I didn’t get it but my personal response to the piece did not negate that of those who loved it. And I think you can extend this idea even further – I know I greatly simplify Barthes’s notions of ‘the death of the author’, but basically, once you have created something and put it out there for the public to enjoy, it is then their interpretation of the thing that counts. Why you made it, what you were thinking when you made it, what you wanted to express – it all becomes irrelevant and subordinate to the notions of the recipient. Unfortunately, that means that your canoe, though you consider it craft, if someone else considers it art, is art. You might not like it, but that’s the world we live in – there are no constraints other than those we put on ourselves. The idea of restricting people or their work based on archaic social notions or antiquated definitions that are as slippery as an eel and just as impossible to pin down, just doesn’t work anymore, which is why this debate will go on and on, round and round in circles, endlessly, never settling on any one answer or definition, and being batted back and forth by one opinion to another.

Let’s not under sell ourselves or fall into the trap of pigeon-holing ourselves (or allowing others to pigeon-hole us) – I make spoons; I craft them from wood with my hands and hand tools. In my book that makes what I do craft and makes me a craftsman. If anyone wants to disagree with me, they are welcome to, just so long as they keep it to themselves. When I craft my spoons I consider the design and aesthetic qualities and try to appeal to people’s taste in what looks beautiful. That is an artistic process and I think that makes some of my work art and me an artist. Again, disagree if you wish – it won’t stop me carving nor trying to make something that looks beautiful. As for all the ‘status’ stuff, whilst I accept that such perceptions exist, I think they are generally notions that are impressed upon us, by those who would categorize and ultimately restrict us and that they belong to an industrial history that I for one am glad to be able to move away from, along with notions of Empire and class. My parents and grandparents lived believing themselves to be ‘working class’, just because someone more privileged who wanted to look down on them said that’s what they were and labelled them as such. I refuse to class status, just as I refuse to have anyone else label what I do or what it is I make – because it is what it is.

And of course, this is all just my opinion, just as if anyone disagrees with me, it is just theirs.

No one can say my poems are not poems because they don’t rhyme.


  1. good stuff. In my exploration in this subject I think that we do get to reflect on the broad cultural definitions, why do people think that your spoons are art? and if they do,do they have any background or experience to hold up their opinions? or do they just use the word "art"?can anything really be art? and if so, then can a car be a bicycle? I really think that with our modern tools, we can influence this...or should I say have a thoughtful discussion. Anyway too much to write about, too little time. thanks for posting your thoughts..

  2. Well written and concisely argued. Great points - you are free to define your work as YOU see fit, and the public is free to receive it as THEY see fit. The rest is intellectual and philosophical argumentation and musings. Which - some find fascinating - so that too is ok. It's all good. :-)