Craft And Art

A Bodgers Camp

Craft And Art - A Response - February 8, 2015

This is a Euro/America centric topic, or 'Mid-Atlantic' if you like. I am keenly aware that other cultures do not see this topic as a problem and in fact strive to keep art and craft looking the same through ages. Therefore this essay does not describe a world wide phenomenon but a specific 'Mid-Atlantic' viewpoint.

One of the major problems involved with discussing this question is our tendencies to project backwards in time the activities of today which lead us into error. To illustrate: in today's world a crafts-person will go to a craft supply store and purchase the means to assume the craft. But in times past such stores did not exist, such stores are relatively recent additions to our cultural milieu. An example I can give you that is easy to find on the internet is the work of Michael Cardew in Africa.

In the world of the past the difficulties of obtaining materials were overcome by communal effort. In other words in a community of potters for example there would be times of the year in which the collections of materials, such as digging clay, and the processing of it in the raw state to something useful would have taken place. This is not a simple matter, clay freshly dug is rarely able to be used as is, but must be processed to make it become pliable and have the right elasticity. Likewise the collection and stockpiling of wood for firing the kilns and the manufacturing of new equipment for the shop. Additionally the raw materials for glazes and colouring would have to be gathered and stored to preserve their integrity. None of these things are simple matters and a single lone potter would be hard pressed to accomplish it all by themselves.

Some crafts required community effort, others required foresight and preparation sometimes years in advance. Chair bodgers come to mind. These people made chair legs and rails. They cut wood in a wood lot, they dried the wood by placing it, hopefully, in a nearby river butt end facing upstream and secured the log to prevent escapement and used the pressure of the water to force the sap out of the tree over the winter. Dragging it to shore it would be cut into pieces and split into small widths to facilitate turning in a roughly hewn shed. A sapling would be bent to make a spring for pedal arrangement that turned the crude lathe well enough to turn out more than adequate chairs legs. These craft-persons moved from community to community much like charcoal burners.

I use these examples to show that crafts in the past were not necessarily solitary occupations, but complex social interactions in static communities where sometimes the craft-people lived and sometimes the craft-people stayed to complete a specific task, chair bodgers and charcoal burners, and then moved on. Knitting in Wales was often performed by men and women, with the majority being men sitting on the streets of the towns and villages where numerous people were occupied in this activity.

The other element of note is that modern thought concerning divisions of labour between the sexes did not exist in the past. This gender biased division of labour is a modern impediment applied by corporate entities to further coerce and control people in their employ. In past ages another form of division occurred because women were not treated the same way depending on the family's social status. The lower down the social scale the less likely there would be a division of labour and the less likely there would be much in the way of sophistication of craft.

Because I come from England and now live in Canada, I am using examples from my own culture to express myself. Should you have enough interest you will most likely find similar examples from your own culture should you wish to explore, and I do encourage you to explore.

For information about separation of gender roles you should investigate this yourself, you will find that in many cases, prior to the Victorian Era and the plethora of male and female servants in service, that specific duties fell to specific persons. For example Ladies In Waiting were as often as not lower ranking female family members who were unmarried.

Almost all clothing for men and women was made by tailors, invariably men. Even today fashion design is dominated by male figures. While in lower status families everyone might pitch in especially when making clothing, a male would be expected to embroider his own smock frock with traditional patterns common to the area. If a man had two, one would be for everyday, and the other for Sunday best, both embroidered by himself and sown by himself. In modern days men cannot even sew a button back on a shirt and turn to women, modern gender bias in the extreme.

Cooking was the purview of men, especially the meat, but one has to bear in mind that not everybody ate meat and many ate only a little meat occasionally. In Victorian Times women were trained to cook and took over most of those roles in the big houses, we can quickly see that the Victorian Age was a turning point for gender biased work. Bakers were men, Millers were men, and so were most of the other trades and crafts almost without exception. Woman served as slave labour throughout most of Western history and is not something we should be proud of. Even in recent times, and especially in the conquest of the American continent, settlers used women to pull ploughs and other heavy manual labour, even while they were pregnant.

Why am I giving all this information?

I want to illustrate how much different life was and how unlike our modern ways that life for crafts-people was. There would have been no argument about what was craft and what was art. It was defined by feudal and post feudal society. Few went to school, and even fewer owned land. Prosperity usually meant a good crop.

How about art?

Most of the artists who got commissioned were from the upper middle class and many had Liberal Arts educations paid for by their families. Because of gender bias of a similar kind few women were educated, but this was not cast in stone and dependent on the family. A liberal Arts education based on the Greek model usually meant that each student would graduate with some drawing skills, and should they have sufficient skills to present themselves to those who wanted to buy art they could succeed in that alone. They would also have at their disposal enough financial family backing to purchase some materials to work with. Nevertheless they still needed studio assistants in the same way as potters needed community, but they were clearly in charge. In addition many sons and daughters of the wealthy were 'paid' into ecclesiastical orders as tribute and they came, sometimes, already well educated and able to pursue some creative occupations. The other group of artists came from the lower social orders where they had escaped poverty and labour by entering ecclesiastical orders. In such an environment if one had a propensity to do a certain thing such as draw or paint well this would be encouraged and we have from the Byzantine period many great examples of Byzantine art as well as illuminated manuscripts. Some of these things sit between the idea in the following paragraph.

So the difference in these times between crafts and arts is easily defined. Crafts were purpose made items, often made with great skill and refinement and beautiful to behold, while art had no specific function at all and was an end to itself. From a proletarian point of view art and artists are elitist products and occupations, while craft products were the very soul of utility and much more desirable.

The phrase "one ignores history at ones peril" comes to mind when we examine this dichotomy that confuses so many people. And the confusion comes about because of misunderstood words like 'beauty' when applied to the arts or to crafts. Kantian philosophy does much to clear this up because beauty is not as simple as one might believe. Many things are called 'beautiful' when they are just 'pretty.' Women are described as beautiful, but the definition of beauty is not about skin deep appearances. So decoration added to craft items is just that, decoration, it may be pretty and you can say it is beautiful, but in either case you are only describing the appearance of the skin, which is just fine. One may also describe the shape of an object in the same way, but again you are only describing the outward appearance.

Artwork that is real Art has a beauty that is defined by its effect on the mind, not it's physical appearance. Art does not require to be well made or pretty (beautiful) in an outward way. The beauty can be contained in the meaning of the art, as perceived by each and every person that views it. Art has no function. If I wanted to make an art cup I must make it to be unusable for it to even begin to be art, I could do this in innumerable way, making it useless at holding liquid, making it so big no one could pick it up, or so small that no one could drink from it. But even so it might still not be art if the aesthetic of it failed some important elements. So the exercise of making an art cup is a useless use of time and materials. I will not make such a cup.

Still on the topic of art:

Kant argues: "that they should affect us as if they had a purpose, although no particular purpose can be found" - Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics. The same should not be said of a craft item.

This should not be a problem for craftsmen and women at all, they are after all trying to make a useful thing and to make it as well as they may. The desire to call it art stems from some elitists idea that comes from crafts-people that artists are somehow or another putting them down or demeaning what they do. Nothing could be further from the truth, crafts-people have highly honed skills that many artists do not. If one takes for example; Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, one discovers they only have ideas, they are actually incapable of making those ideas a reality for themselves and must hire others with the skills to make their ideas a reality. A crafts-person does none of that, they are hands on skilled artisans that can make beautiful objects, but as long as they are functional they are not art. Crafts-people are as creative as anyone else, artists included, and in some cases their work is more highly valued than art, present day ridiculous art prices notwithstanding.

So to those of the persuasion that somehow artists are stealing their fire let me say this, what you do is unique for you and for those that admire your work, your works will probably in many cases still exist long after our culture has decayed into dust. And if it is any consolation, when archeologists of the distant future dig up our civilization they will find the things that persist; craft items. These will be put into museums and labelled as 'Art,' your need will be fulfilled.

Links to topics discussed in this piece:

 Chair Bodgers"
 Illinois Stories – Windsor Chairs"
 Chalk Marl Marling Clay
 Bodgers of Buckinghamshire
 Emmanuel Kant – Aesthetics
 Wikipedia – Michael Cardew"
 Michael Cardew

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