Saturday, August 20, 2011

Craftsman's Conversation With Greg

My friend, Greg, is a brilliant musician who also builds fine musical instruments from lap dulcimers to the telecaster he’s playing in this video (which will give you an idea of just what wonderful musician he is).

Upon my showing some friends the following video of the process an artist went through in creating a sculpture installation for a California airport, Greg and I began a conversation I’ll share here.

John, what's your opinion on artists who design the art and then have others build it for them? Being a hands on guy with your clay (and me to a much lesser extent with wood) I wonder how you feel about it.

It seems odd to me to think that the artist's output is the idea, not the process of creating the idea. I can't imagine designing a cool looking guitar and then having somebody else build it for me and then saying that the guitar is MY art.
Then again, your pottery and my lutherie produce items that can be created by a single person. I'm not sure it would be possible to create the floating tree sculpture with just one person.

But where's the line?
I don't know. It's probably as fuzzy a line as "What is art?"

I could write for a very long time, circle back, cover the same ground from a different angle, and still not answer that question to even my own satisfaction.

One thing I can say for almost certain. Maybe. Probably. And that is: The greatest share of your question (and a question I, too, often ask) revolves around the confusion of "art" and "craft".

To that issue at least, art has for centuries accepted that the artist is the conceiver of the idea -- with the finished product executed either by himself OR others.

Whether discussing visual art (The famous artists of the Renaissance were all studio heads -- Rubens, Michelangelo, DaVinci were the designers and the work that was executed by the craftsmen of their studios), or discussing music (Mozart, Bach , et al were composers but the art was the work of many craftsmen), the artist-as-designer has been the accepted, legitimate model. All the while (curiously, and ironically when perceived by our 21st century sensibilities), the craftsmen of that model remained anonymous.

When viewed from the perspective down a long timeline of art history, the confusion of art and craft that we are discussing is a rather recent -- Romantic Era -- re-definition of something that had been accepted as the norm for art for centuries before. Until that recently, for the most part the art world accepted that art was the concept and craft was the execution....and it didn't matter who did the executin'.

But I think those once tauter lines started a-tangling up in a growing sense of American self-reliance and inherent and equal admiration for not just ingenuity, but also skill. I think that that changing sense of values got us Americans thinking about the confusing line between art and craft in different terms.

Add to that the fact that several of the most influential American Art movements (Arts & Crafts/Prairie) rose at least in part as direct reactions to the burgeoning industrial revolution. Against that impersonal, machine-driven, industrial background, the American Artist began to see himself as a bit of a John Henry trying to beat back this cultural steam drill that was overtaking our psyche.
In the end, all I can conclude is this: I care about craftsmanship.

And I don't particularly care to participate in the art world -- nor can I even keep up with it anymore.

I do know that when 99% of the people I know talk about art-- even those people in my "art" world of art fairs and artist friends -- they are actually talking about craft. They don't think they are, but they are. Those art fair "artists" don't even want to think of themselves as talking about craft because "craft" has taken on implications of macramé, dried flower arranging, basket weaving, theorem painting, country crafts. See, just as art's definition shifted a did craft's.

Still, those who think they are talking about art are most definitely talking about craft. Especially as compared to the manner in which the art world defines itself.

There's another whole branch of this discussion that revolves around ethics and marketing. For instance, is what is being marketed being portrayed accurately to the patron? (for example, it is doubtful that Kinkade's market is fully aware of just how little value is contained in what they are buying....much less that they are not buying PRINTS {they are buying "reproductions" -- a whole different animal in the art world}).

I market mostly through art fairs that demand that the artist also be the craftsman. I like it that way for any number of reasons. First and foremost is the abject honesty in the value of the work offered. Traditionally, what is rarest is of greatest value. The notion of the artist-craftsman almost GUARANTEES an inherently small inventory that should, therefore, also imply greater value.

An interesting aside: In some cases the "figurine" and "collectible" world has seen some of their market implode because of the internet. The illusion of value implied by those charlatan's use of the language of "limited edition" was exposed in real time by hundreds of eager sellers glutting a suddenly international market with merchandise they had been led to believe was limited in number (and therefore and thereby valuable) ...only to find out that the stuff they were collecting, they could get any time they wanted it.....and cheaply.

Do I still think the art/craft line is pretty blurry? Yes. And I think that just maybe if there is ultimate justice in this world, what the art museums of the 22nd and 23rd centuries will find themselves curating from the 20th and 21st century will be our craft.

1 comment:

  1. While growing-up it was my belief anybody could be an artist... it took perseverance, skill, and determination to become a craftsman.
    I don't think I was much off the mark with that thought.