Saturday, March 8, 2014

What is Art?

The title asks What is Art? There really is no answer of course. At least no single answer, and even a set of answers which try to pin down something half definitive would just lead to more discussion and argument. We all know that art and craft are different, but then what of high-end craft? I think we regularly think of artisan one-of-kind ceramics, for example, more art than craft.

There is one definition that has rung true for me over the years. David Pye wrote several books in the late sixties which I bought, because I was learning wood tuning and David did some very interesting turnings. In his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship David lays out a scholarly dissertation (published by Cambridge Press) on the distinction between objects made with an element of risk, and objects made that are completely determined from the start.

The distinction isn't between mass produced items and handmade items, rather, the distinction is between how the process is carried out. Is there an element of chance, risk, or some step in the process that isn't fully determined from the start. Mass produced items must be fully determined in order for production to be efficient. Turning pots or making any craft item can also be fully determined from the start in order to produce items which the public can afford... ditto for 'art'.

I'll let David speak for himself....

Workmanship of the better sort is called, in an honorific way, craftsmanship. Nobody, however, is prepared to say where craftsmanship ends and ordinary manufacture begins. It is impossible to find a generally satisfactory definition for it in face of all the strange shibboleths and prejudices about it which are acrimoniously maintained. It is a word to start an argument with.

If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he work. The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making; and so I shall call this kind of workmanship 'The workmanship of risk : and uncouth phrase, but at least descriptive.

What I pick up on in his definition is that it is not the object itself which is categorized, but the process. This idea of risk in your work intrigued me years ago and still does today.

Beauty isn't art. Beautiful things are mass produced every day. Design isn't art. Design is a process whereby we typically want a predictable end. I've spent a lot of time (as can be seen in past blog posts) thinking about design. I love design. I love to make beautiful things, but for me at least that's not art. It is following a recipe. You use the principles and elements of design and you end up with something pleasing. With a little practice anyone can follow a recipe, and maybe improve on it too.

This post came about  because I was looking through some of my old sketch books. The image at the top of the post is from a period many years ago where I was working with ink, markers and pens. Mostly black and white. Quite the opposite of what I'm doing today. In those days everything was undetermined. I would pick up discarded things laying in the street, cut stuff out of magazines, combine drawings from different places, whatever. Anything that caught my eye was potential content. For example, at the bottom of the above drawing is a bunch of glue globs and whole pieces of wheat.  There's a feather in the middle and on top a discarded pack from Kertek cigarettes. Why?... who knows.

Is it art, or, is my more recent work of abstracted pastoral barns and trees art?

I think it is only worth asking... when I'm done with a piece am I surprised by what was created? How much of the process was out of my control (that is, who/what/how was control applied). What risks did I take in the creative process? Where did I push into a new direction? Am I just repeating myself?

These types of questions probe into the creative process, constantly seeking to make it motivationally authentic, more exciting, more challenging, and leave questions of art for others.

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