Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craftsman's Conversation Continued

GREG: I look at my own work and it's overwhelming and quite often frustrating at how much craft I have to learn to create something that may approach art. In lutherie I see things in my mind which I am not yet capable of getting out of the wood. And we haven't even touched on the idea of making the instrument work well as a tool for the artist who's using it. There's an incredible amount of crafty skills and knowledge to get an instrument to sound wonderful.

But in other things, song writing comes to mind, I'm the exact opposite. I think I have the technical ability (the craft) to play other people's music well but writing songs is incredibly tough for me. It's an art to which I can't even begin to apply any craft.

And then there are times when I have a bunch of wood scraps and notice a shape in them which makes me think "That's cool. I should glue it up just like that." If the piece looks good is it art because I noticed the shape and form? Where was the craft?

I DON'T KNOW! But the engineer part of my brain really wants a formula into which I can plug my variables and the output is art. I don't think it works that way.

ME: Just to muddy the water further...

I remember years ago there was a letter to the editor of Ceramics Monthly Magazine (I think it was during the Bill Hunt we’ll-die-trying-to-be-called-art era). The sentiment of this letter is pretty common and widespread and I’ve heard it voiced many times since, but it stuck in my twenty-something-year-old mind as one of the first times I'd remembered someone brave enough to ask the naive question.

Essentially the letter was from a clay "sculptor" (I never saw the work in question, but from her description of her process, she was clearly not making pots) and she was asking what's "fair" about an art world wherein she pours herself -- heart and soul -- into a piece that takes her up to a week to complete (not to mention the additional firing time, etc).....and yet she entered a clay exhibition in which, as she described it, a bowl that most likely took the potter no more than five minutes to throw and then slap some glaze on, won the top award of the exhibition?

There are at least two good answers to her question:

1. (and my favorite) Every single time I demonstrate at a show I will have at least one man (it's never a woman for some reason) ask me how long it takes to do a series of the pot I'm working on (“How many of those can you make in a day?”). I can see the wheels turning in his head as he watches me finish a piece in five minutes, walks over to my display and sees a similar but finished piece, checks the price of the finished piece, glances back and forth a few times between the finished and the process....

...essentially he's adding up what seems to him like my ability to print myself money. It seems too easy for such a price tag, as he adds it up in his mind.

Ultimately, when I see those wheels turning, and I thus know the motive behind the question, when that someone then asks me how long it takes me to make a piece, I answer, "35 years and 5 minutes"

2. The value of art is not to be found entirely in its degree of difficulty. Nor is it to be found in its complexity. The arts are about content.....and content is arrived at by the artist's life experience. The work of an artist is the culmination of his experiences AND his expertise. So, if we must compare value on some apples to apples scale -- the sculptor (in my anecdote) is failing to see that her week spent creating her work of art that was ultimately found to be comparatively vacuous in content, was trumped by that potter's lifetime of experience that informed the content of his five minute bowl. The potter's bowl was 35 years and 5 minutes in the making.


  1. I love your first answer to the question! But by the same token I wonder if the sculptor can't also make the same claim that the 'content' took her 35 years and then some to develop? If "content is arrived at by the artist's life experience" how can it be dismissed as comparatively vacuous? Even if outsiders consider it trivial or incomprehensible (and the same can be said for pottery by certain audiences) doesn't its expression also depend on the person's accumulated life experiences, introspection and investigation?

    Technical craftsmanship is only one of the things that takes time to learn and develop. An artist's imagination seems to require a similar path of growth, exploration, and mastery. And isn't that also true of our own imagination as potter/craftspeople? It just seems like creative people of all stripes are more similar in these respects than they are different?

    I don't know.... What do you think?

  2. "But by the same token I wonder if the sculptor can't also make the same claim that the 'content' took her 35 years and then some to develop? If "content is arrived at by the artist's life experience" how can it be dismissed as comparatively vacuous?"

    Heh. Because if she'd had the life experience, she wouldn't have asked the question. She would have known.

    Okay, the "vacuous" bit was gratuitous. But it was based on a bit of intuition -- she was asking such a naive question in the first place because she still didn't understand that art doesn't consider degree of difficulty when determining value.