Art and Crafts

Yesterday Serafin and I drove up to Lake Sunapee to visit the annual fair of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (it runs through Sunday, the 9th). She had been there before, but it was my first time in the 23 summers I’ve lived in the state. I was stunned and delighted by the quality, quantity, and variety of work on display.

There must have been several hundred booths, most manned personally by the craftsman (or personed manfully by the craftsperson?). I had a few interesting if brief conversations, including one with Ainsley Bodman, sculptor and maker of stone bowls, along with a one-hour tour of selected exhibitors by master turner Peter Bloch, whose specialty is gorgeous translucent wooden lampshades.

Peter gave each of us a hand-out bearing a pronouncement by renowned California furniture designer Art Carpenter, whose work has been on display at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. Here’s what he said:

Art does not have to be beautiful, but Craft does, and always has. Craft must be done with skill, care, and love. As a matter of fact, Craft stands as a metaphor for these qualities.

I’ve thought for years about the fact that there is no terminological distinction between “art” and “craft” for the Greeks and the Romans. The Greek word is technē, whence “technical” and “technique,” and the Latin word is ars, whence both “artist” and “artisan”. Just what is the line of demarcation between “art” and “craft”? When did it appear? Perhaps it was emerging during the Renaissance in Italy, but my guess is that it didn’t really begin to take hold until the late 18th century (see some of the writings of Goethe and Schiller, for example, and the ensuing glorification of art and artistic genius by the Romantics, in Germany and elsewhere).

“Craft” seems to live squarely in the realm of the useful. It includes the beautification of our bodies (clothing, jewelry, cosmetics), of the things we use (e.g., in storing, preparing, and consuming food), and of the spaces we inhabit (objects for the walls of our homes, not to mention the dwellings themselves). I think of the replica I own of a beautiful Greek vase from 500 B.C.E. The original is the kind of thing that would be displayed in an art museum, yet what is it but a beautifully decorated utilitarian object, something for storing olive oil or grain, perhaps? Is it not “craft”, albeit of the highest order? Perhaps the same can be said of most if not all the “art” from the ancient world, even the temples, public buildings, and statues, which have in part a decorative function.

When the Church was the principal patron of the arts, the utilitarian aspect of works was more subtle: the work of artists/craftsmen was often meant to be either didactic (conveying stories and doctrines to the illiterate) or conducive to worship, devotion, or prayer. The cathedral itself as a work of “art” can be seen in this light, as the creation of a space that promotes a withdrawal from the concerns of everyday existence and an opening to experience of the presence of God. But surely the architect (the master builder) was a craftsman by most modern standards, managing and coordinating the work of myriad separate crafts, from stone carving and masonry to the construction of stained glass windows to the painting of frescoes. True, he would have had an eye for the beautiful, for pleasing proportions and balance, for form, color, and texture, but the same must be said for true masters of pottery, furniture making, tapestry, and the like.

After visiting the Museum of Modern Art a few months ago I commented (as though anticipating Carpenter’s words) that I found little there that was really “beautiful” — maybe some sculpture by Brancusi and a very few other things. Rather, most of what we saw was interesting, engaging, thought-provoking, challenging, disturbing, offensive — but hardly “a delight to the senses.” It was not trying to meet me where I was and give me pleasure, but rather (I suspect) to reorient me, to make me uncomfortable in my complacency, to stretch me. Think of Picasso’s “Guernica” (which Serafin and I saw in Madrid in March): in evoking the brutality of war and the agony and suffering that war produces, it appals and horrifies — giving pleasure was hardly the artist’s intent.

A high school art teacher I met recently (alas, his name escapes me) asserted that the first piece of modern painting was Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”, because it was the first work to place the viewer (or at least the viewer’s point of view) into the picture: we gaze at the scene only to discover that those depicted are gazing directly back at us. Maybe that’s a key to the divergence of art from craft: we are “in the picture” as art reaches into our soul and seeks to effect some transformation. I suppose there’s a hint of that in the ecclesiastical art of the Middle Ages, but it becomes self-conscious and intentional during the past two centuries.

But counter-examples come to mind in connection with the written word. Even in the ancient world, poetry and drama, unlike the graphic and plastic arts, contrived to draw the listener/reader/spectator into the deed. Perhaps one may argue that the Parthenon, the “Charioteer,” and the vases of the 6th century masters are supreme examples of craft rather than works of art. But does the “Oresteia” invade and transform the soul of its audience any less than “Waiting for Godot”? There is beauty in both ancient and modern drama, but likewise there are the grotesque and the terrifying.

I suppose I am accustomed to using the terms “art” and “beauty” as though I know what they mean. But in fact there’s so much I don’t understand about all this. I’m no art historian (much less artist or craftsman), nor am I a philosopher of aesthetics: I can’t begin to give you an account of what I might mean when I perceive something to be beautiful. Nor can I tell you why we regard painting as art but weaving as a craft. There are surely some interesting questions to pursue in these reflections.

But none of this perplexity detracts from the pleasure of walking from booth to booth, viewing the astonishing results of the skill, care, and love of our New Hampshire craftsmen — however we choose to name it and to understand it.

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