Sunday, February 08, 2009

Arts and crafts.

Or possibly arts vs. crafts, depending on your viewpoint. I get kind of surly on the topic, myself.

(Still got nothing IRL - in real life - to blog. This is one of my favorite topics to kick around with art majors and other folks who know art history, and I can't believe I've never dumped it here, so off we go.)

For most of human history, the concept of art that we have now - as some kind of exclusive, mystical creation that only the select, talented few could create - didn't exist. It was all considered a craft. Mosaic for your palazzo? Fresco for the temple? Ceramics for your kitchen? All produced by craftsmen, who apprenticed like all other crafts from metal working to carpentry to glass making. You hired a guy to tile your floor or paint your walls the same way you hired anyone else. There were contracts and everything. We've still got some contracts from paintings done in the middle ages, and they even spelled out what pigments were to be used. The consumer/patron dictated everything, and the painter shut up and painted it.

By the 1500s, painters such as Leonardo Da Vinci got fed up with being craftsmen and began arguing that they were Artists, and what they did was a Great Skill and tried to get their abilities listed among the great topics for study in University - at the time, geometry, music, rhetoric, and astronomy. (I assume the Leonardo argued that Art was a branch of geometry.) Sculptors (who were often also painters at the time) got in on the act, arguing THEY were also Talented, too. And before long, they had their way, and painting and sculpting were considered High Arts and everything else got shuffled off into a dark corner and called a craft, implying craftsmen were nothing but interchangeable workers and one did the same job as another.

And here things sat, philosophically, until the 1800s.

(Incidentally, when I hear the term "High Art" I think of marijuana and assorted other... substances. Because they've gotta have chemical assistance to REALLY think painting and sculpting are the only arts.)

In the 1800s, the world industrialized. And there was the inevitable backlash to industrial production, that is mostly lumped into something called "The Arts and Crafts Movement". If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should. It spawned William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright and Art Deco and Art Nouveau and - personal opinion, this last - modern fashion design, especially haute couture. As well as the modern approach to design in most industries, and a host of other things.

The position of the Arts and Crafts Movement stated that art was not limited to paint and sculpture, and implied that ANYTHING could be an art, if the proper amount of care was given, and creativity applied (which I and I think most other people agree with in this era). Then they blew it by only paying attention to specific disciplines and ignoring many others.

Most of the movers and shakers of the movement were socialists, and one of their goals was to provide useful (useful - I love these guys, even if they blew it), beautiful things for the average home. Then they blew it again by having such high production standards and unreasonable manufacturing requirements (everything made entirely by hand with the best possible materials), that the cost of their products was beyond the budget of most of the everyday people they claimed they designed for (though the rich were happy enough to snap them up). The vast majority of them treated their workers well; I will give them that. In fact they were a big influence on later workers' rights movements.

But it was a good start. Even if they ignored knitting. They insisted that anyone could produce a useful, beautiful home, yet the only kits they provided for women to actually DO that, was for embroidery. (William Morris' wife and daughter were both expert embroiderers. Coincidence? I doubt it.) Blew it again.

So, even though they blew it in a lot of ways, the Arts and Crafts Movement did sort of break down the "High Art" walls and get some respect for disciplines other than painting and sculpture, though some of the snobbier museums and curators have yet to get on board with the idea. Most people who aren't snobs will agree that ANYTHING can be art, if enough care, attention to detail, and creativity are lavished on it.

On a good day, knitting can definitely be art.

For fun, links to some other art that isn't high. (It'll pass a drug test!)
Architecture. (I remain a fan of what I think of as 'non-square buildings', in other words, modern, usable spaces that aren't in a freaking box.) The link goes to Casa Batllo by Antoni Gaudi, but the web site contains photos of all kinds of other cool stuff.

Ceramics. Humanity's been making cool-as-hell stuff from clay ever since the stone age. I've discussed this before. If that's not art, I'll eat it. (The first link goes to Kyocera, the company that made my ceramic knife. A better link for a total world overview is probably the second one to my own blog post, or the Wiki article.)

Textiles. Knitting was developed for a practical purpose, so even knitted art is usually fairly practical. (Sorry, but it's true. A jumper can be art, but it's still something you wear.) Some other textiles, particularly laces and tapestries, were ALWAYS art, if you ask me. Here are other links that are cool, since we're all fiber-heads. Chinese, Ottoman, Macedonian, Oriental Carpets, American Quilts, and, well, you get the idea.

I was gonna also put in links to glass making, blacksmithing/metallurgy, book making and illustrating, and a couple others, but I'd be here all day. So I'll quit now. But I think we all agree, the only High Arts are in people's heads - with or without chemical assistance.


Donna Lee said...

You hit it when you said, "anything can be art". I think some people have talent that I wish I had and can "make" art that I will never be able to make. I admire that. I can even try to do something very well and lavish lots of care on it but my product will not be art. I don't have the creative eye to make that leap from craft to art. I'm ok with that. I do the best I can and am usually pleased with the finished product. And if someone calls it craft, where's the insult?

Amy Lane said...

I'm with you-- I've got a total grudge against elitist art-- the 'art movie' that nobody sees and nobody cried at, the picture that nobody understands, the restaurant that serves tiny decorative portions that nobody can taste. The art-history lesson was VERY wll recieved!

Bells said...

What I've been wondering lately is why the term craft sounds so belittling. I never use it, because I think it sounds like something you did in Primary School and because it conjures up images I don't like about the kinds of 'crafts' that are out there.

maybe I'm just a snob.

But then I think about the term 'crafstmanship' and that doesn't sound bad at all. It sounds like skill, and talent and the desire to make something wonderful (whether it's beautiful or useful or both) and that's all good.

But I don't like the idea of being 'crafty' or 'into craft' because it sounds like doing stuff from childhood, which was fine, in childhood.

I'm still figuring out my thoughts on this.

Anonymous said...

All of which may be why the term "artisan" has taken hold recently. All it really is is a craftsman, but there is that echo of "art" to make it sound better. Think of "artisanal" cheeses or breads. Combines art with craft, and just a dash of science!

Alwen said...

One of the highlights of an art appreciation class I took in college was an exhibit full of the work from Louis Comfort Tiffany's workshops. Never mind enormous stained glass, to start with they produced everything from fountain pens to blotters, and many of his designers were women.

The other was a Monet exhibit - I never loved Monet until I stood in a room full of his enormous canvases and had the experience of seeing those dots and smears shimmer and transform into lily pads on the water. It was SO WEIRD. Like seeing through his eyes. A little greeting card repro is not the same thing at all.

David St. Louis said...

As a kid I read Comic Books. That gave me two things that I continue to cherish to this day. The first is my voracious love for reading, which spawned my love of writing (Journal, poetry, etc). The second is my love of art which has inspired me to sketch, collect art, and take pictures. Something useful can come of something seemingly small...

Unknown said...

I have always contended that my Mom was an artist. Most of her artwork was self-taught.

She made all five of her daughters' wedding dresses and one daughter-in-law's. Including, beading the lace because the stuff that came beaded just wasn't "right."

She made wedding cakes.

She knit incredible things.

She quilted (all seven of her kids and many of her grandchildren have hand quilted spreads).

She hooked rugs. Again, because she didn't like the fabrics and dyes available, she started felting and dying her own fabrics for her rugs. My kids don't understand why her rugs are on the backs of chairs and not on the floors.

She is the one who taught me to not use cheap stuff. If you use cheap stuff, you end up with something cheap. I have a poncho that she knit for me when I was in 10th grade (which was 1969). Aran patterns. I still have it. It still looks good.

While I have not inherited her talents, my 14 year old daughter has. Besides being able to draw anything she sees, she can also design stuff in her head and put it to paper. In fact, one of her girlfriends (a high school senior) has asked her to design her prom dress. The girl's mom is making it but Lindsey is designing it. And her goal for life, she wants to be an architectural engineer (oh, and a high school English teacher).

Thanks for allowing me think about this.

Walden said...

I completely agree with this.

Ianny said...

Let's not forget photography, too. While everybody can take good shots, it takes a professional photographer (the artist)to capture a subject in the best angle, perspective and color composition - something worthy to be displayed on tastefully furnished homes.

I especially enjoy photos of wildlife in action. Always amazed how those guys trigger their cameras at precise microseconds of actions.