Thursday, August 25, 2011

Old Magic

A conundrum I’ve struggled with my entire life has been that eternal set of questions—“What is Art?” “What is Craft?” “How are the two related?”

It’s always worth an evening to engage friends in conversation about these things. We can talk all night, but what has eluded us every time is a concise set of answers, some commonplaces about Art and Craft. Until now.

While I’ve got a sense that the mere act of putting forth my revelations about Craft and Art will reveal their flaws, will show the cracks in their reasoning, it’s much better to share them with you than to hide them away. Besides, I want to hear what you think about these ideas.

I’ll start with Craft. Put in its simplest terms, I believe Craft is the power of transformation. There is something materially alchemical in the taking of raw materials—paper, wool, apples are the examples I’ll use here—and through skill and work turning them into something else, something useful. Through Craft we can create something that didn’t exist before—paper becomes a book, wool a sweater, apples applesauce.

Art, as an activity, cannot exist without Craft, because at its core Art is also the power of transformation. But Art adds something more. In Art, transformation is enhanced by imagination. A blank book becomes something greater once a story is printed in it. A sweater takes on meaning if it is made as a gift by a loved one who is thinking of the recipient. And anyone who has spent time around the artisan food scene (in Berkeley or elsewhere) knows that homemade applesauce is rarely mere applesauce.

There are a few theories as to why the D.I.Y. movement—people making more of the things they use everyday—is making a comeback. Some point to the alienation brought about by technology that discourages us from meeting face-to-face. Others say the terrible economy is leading people to stay at home and take up productive hobbies. Both these reasons are valid, but there is something greater, more basic and ancient, at work here.

Craft and Art are activities that have always been with us, as I was reminded by Werner Herzog’s footage of Paleolithic cave paintings in his new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I believe that our taking hold of these powers of transformation is a response to a feeling of awe or powerlessness in the face of larger forces.

We pick up raw materials, we work with them, sharpen our skills. Each of us adds touches that only we can. We share the results with others. In doing so, we transform our environment. We shape our world so it makes more sense to us. Craft is the power of transformation. Art is the power of transformation imbued with imagination. They are acts of old magic. In fact, they may be the defining features of what it means to be human.


Shelley Noble said...

A perfect post, Karima. Flawless logic from my point of view. I love love love your definitions of the terms and will adopt them as my own.

I think this idea of yours could be the basis for an entire book itself. It's certainly a strong, rich, and fruitful case you have made.

Castle in the Air said...

Shelley - Wow. Thank you.

Susan Krzywicki said...

I disagree, but am not sure I can define it yet...somehow just adding an extra layer to Craft doesn't account for everything in the "Art" category.

For example, Picasso was supposed to have said something about the creation of anything new being ugly. And I understood that what he was saying is that things that are new are not "finished" and that successive creative efforts by that person or others, refines it and makes it "beautiful."

And, of course, a conceptual Work of Art has no craft to it. It's very nature is conceptual.

This is an exciting topic - one I have thought about and read about but never had anyone to discuss with, so I appreciate the opportunity to enter the dialog.

Please, keep talking about it....

Anonymous said...

I loved your blog on craft and art. It made me think of blue, and purple, and scarlet and fine linen with embroidered pomegranates...and those with wise hearts who do cunning work.

Mindy said...

Such a beautiful way of defining them! I agree in the magic. Us and bower birds, eh?

Jake Gariepy said...

Excellent post... So often I find myself completing a project, usually a drawing or a painting, and asking my wife, "Do you think this is art or just some kind of cute picture that you and I would like". It's as if something can only be art if others agree that it is.

I find that people are so much more comfortable with the term "craft" because they feel that it is less than art - more "fun". less expert. By your definition, this isn't necessarily so. I happen to agree with you.

Wonderful perspective on a question that beleagurs me and, likely, others.



Christine LeFever said...

I enjoyed thoroughly your post on art vs craft. I've never felt comfortable in a fine art gallery. Craft intrigues me the most, and yet I respect with awe great works of art. Of course Picasso was a master at marketing his art. Who is to say? I just do not know. I shall go with your definition, for it makes room for both in a happy way. I recently joined an antiques mall that is now renting space to artists who no longer show in galleries, since the galleries have closed down. These are artists who use old things in their art. I am one of them. So far, very good for all of us!