Recently I was told, in a friendly manner, that I shouldn’t be down in the Craft area of a market. I should be up in the Artist area because my work was “good enough”. I appreciated the sentiment and their appraisal of my skill, but not the attitude. Blacksmithing, like other traditional crafts, seems to exist in a limbo somewhere between craft and art. It’s not “craft” in the modern sense, because you can’t buy the materials at the local BigBoxStore. It’s (often), not art, because most of it can’t be hung on a wall and it’s not a painting for-goodness-sakes. This perceived dichotomy between “art” and “craft” has been on my mind for a while. I’m not the first person to address this subject and I’m far from the most eloquent or qualified. Still, I wanted to explain what the terms mean to me, if for no other reason than to have something to point to the next time someone says, “Oh, but you’re an artist! You should be [over there/up there/down there/in there] with the artists!” I began my own thoughts about art with a simple statement: “Craft is useful, art is useless.” I formed this statement after reading a few things on Robin Wood’s and Jarrod Stone Dahl’s respective (excellent) blogs and watching a few videos where Barn the Spoon talks about why he makes spoons. It a statement that generally gets a reaction, and it’s supposed to. It is stated in the simplest terms, but they still require clarification. What I mean by that statement is that art objects, in a strictly functional sense, are useless. An example would be exquisitely carved spoons that are bent at angles which make them impossible to use as an eating or cooking utensil. Craft, in contrast, is the finely decorated and made spoon that is sturdy enough to be used for years mixing up cake batter and biscuit dough. Craft is that cherished mug, or spoon, or plate, or pen, or any other handmade object we find ourselves using day after day, that brings a simple pleasure to whatever we are doing. There was an article in a local paper, recently, about the renewal of pottery traditions in the area. In it there’s a quote that sums up what I’m trying to say quite well:
“I’m not making art, I’m making pottery,” Stewart said. “I find it infinitely more charming when someone calls me up seriously distressed because they broke their coffee mug and it’s the only one they want to use. It becomes something that they hold and put their lips on and their food in. It integrates with their life in a way that a painting can’t.”
So, my definition of art and craft has become a little more nuanced. I suspect it will continue to do so. One thing that my earlier definition doesn’t address is that neither is “better” than the other, at least in terms of cultural or social value. Artists provide a valuable service to the community. My reaction isn’t to art itself, it’s to the belief that anything hand made, and made reasonably well, is “art” and thus some sort of luxury or something that should be put on a pedastal. I want to see the hand-made become part of daily life again. Ultimately the reason I say I work at a craft, not an art, is because craft produces that which helps us live our everyday lives. I see it as a complement to the local food movement. The “Local Craft” movement, then, is where the plate you eat off of was made by the potter or woodturner down the road. Where the cheese on that plate came from the local dairy. Not out of necessity, because of “The End of the World As We Know It”, but out of choice. A choice made because we, as a society, have reached a point where we appreciate having quality items made by someone we know, or at least can meet face to face, over quantity. Not something that should be forced on people, either, simply something that will strike a chord in the souls of enough people to become a self-sustaining movement even here, in relatively rural Mississippi. I guess, what I’m trying to say, is I aspire to be a craftsman (who sometimes makes art), not an Artist who draws from a craft.