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What is craft? What is art? Does it matter?

Journal

What is craft? What is art? Does it matter?

Kristopher Matheson

Art is craft, but craft is not all art.
Artists are craftsman, but not all craftsman are artists.
Artists aren’t always crafting art.
Art can’t exist without craft.

I think I am more confused about art and craft than when I began to jot down my ideas. The other day, I sat at my desk flipping through my journals to look for ideas about craft and art I had already had written, and when I finished I had over three full pages. 

You are probably wondering why I am even thinking about this, well that answer has two parts. I started to give this serious thought after listening to an episode of On Taking Pictures. I enjoy Bill and Jeffery’s discussions on the why, it’s one of the reasons I consistently keep listening to their show. They have an uncanny knack to spark ideas in their listeners that lead to conversations. The second part was after receiving THE LETTER #05 (a digital version of a handwritten letter from fellow OTP listener Holger, who has also been trying to wrap his head around this whole “what is art, what is craft” idea). His LETTER lead me to write my own letter to him about art and craft in response. Yes, pen to paper, envelope and a stamp, a good ol’ fashioned correspondence by mail, which eventually ended up being this post.

As you can probably guess there is no easy definition of art or craft, these are fluid concepts that change over time and space. Are they related? I think they are. Are they just synonyms? No. Words have nuances, unfortunately few people today recognize or value the power that words have.

Back to the issue at hand. So what is craft? It (i.e., skill, technique, ability, know-how) is learning the ins and outs, and knowledge of a craft, and using its tools at your disposal in a pleasing manner to create something (paintings, photographs, books, cakes, music). A craftsman may be working towards a larger goal such as creating a business or marketing their craft, or he or she may craft for their own enjoyment.

What’s art then? Art (i.e., imagination, vision, attitude, creativity) is a title given by an outside force to craft that has obtained a certain standing within society.

Who is to judge whether or not your craft is art? The outside force are editors, publishers, art dealers (gallerist, is that even a proper word), the audience, the industry, the market; they decide who wears the labels and who doesn't. There is even the possibility for visitors to your photography website (for example) to label your craft as art, even though you might not agree with them.

There is one small issue with all of this. In this current generation it is entirely possible to self-label yourself whatever you want. Can you call yourself an artist? Yes, you can … but should you? No.

Long ago the amateur of today was called an apprentice and they had to work at their craft under the tutorage of a master. The apprentice honed their craft for years producing paintings, sculptures, music, buildings or whatever he or she was crafting; that’s it, nothing more and not works of art. Just crafted objects. However, if the apprentice was lucky or skillful enough after years of dedication to their craft the apprentice might get elevated to master, and then the new master would then begin apprenticing a younger generation of apprentices. Okay, I simplified this system which started out in Europe during the Late Middle Ages; the point is the title had to be obtained through years of dedicated work. Oh how all that has changed with the concept of the solo artist who answers to no one but him or herself. There is something wrong, so very wrong, with the current generation thinking that you can call yourself whatever you want and make it true.

After thinking about all of this I asked myself “Do I, you, or we really need to worry about what craft is, or what art is?” Ask yourself this fundamental question: who are you crafting for? If the answer is yourself there is no need to worry about art just focus on the craft. Take the time and dedication to learn what the essential tools are of your craft, and what job they were designed to do. You can never forget that you are practicing a craft that is based on certain principles.

Before you begin expressing your voice, vision, authentic self or however you call it, you need to know and understand the basic principles, without that base your craft will be weak and it’ll show. The title may come later, if you are lucky while you’re alive, or unluckily when you’re dead. Quick example, Vivian Maier comes to mind. She was good at her craft (you can see that in her photos, she obviously put in the time and effort to learn), but she kept her photography private, so it wasn’t until after she had died that she became know as a master of photography and her photos elevated to art.

She’s not the only example (go Google “artists discovered after death") you’d be surprised how often this happens. What good is a title to a dead person? Not very useful.

Just focus on your craft, and leave the art for others to worry about.