Artist, Craftman, Artisan.

First off, apologies for the lack of an article last week. A combination of weather and new employment interrupted the settlebanc build. Be just and fear not: no blog-fading here.

A recurring conversation in the woodworking community is whether what we do is Art or Craft. Arguments may be made for either side. The current resurgence of the discussion in the Blogosphere has come from two articles making the rounds this past week. Jarrod StoneDahl kicked it off over at his blog with this post, and Robin Wood (a relatively famous English woodturner) responded thus.

Robin really makes the point that this is far from a new discussion. While the article he cites is only ten years old, the article itself discusses attempting to describe this same discussion from two centuries ago. Both relate that part of the problem in defining these terms is the variability and evolution of language. Also, while we may even consider that the connotations and definitions of words within our native language may have changed over time, we do not always consider that there are peculiarities of language that do not easily survive translation from one to another.

Walter Crane in “The Claims of Decorative Art” (1892) boldly surmises that “in classical antiquity and the middle ages the visual arts were regarded as purely imitative occupations in contrast to the speculative and intellectual occupations of the liberal arts (sciences), for which reason a separation of arts and crafts was unknown and in a scale of absolutes the visual arts ranked below the liberal arts.
That is, Art-with-a-capital-A was defined in antiquity and the middle ages as objects that were the domain of Intellectual Sciences. Which might be a great way to mark a divide between the two schools if it still weren’t muddied by our previous discussions of how Natural Philosophy and Mathematics underpin the methods and techniques of Artwork and Craftwork. That’s also a bold statement that cannot be readily defended, considering that neither Antiquity nor the European Middle Ages were as monolithic and inflexible eras as was once commonly believed.

Another pair of wrinkles, maybe more like laugh lines:
“Il Libro dell’ Arte” was written by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini in the 15th Century. In translation, the 15th Century Italian original title to the 20th Cen English it becomes known as “The Craftman’s Handbook.” The expressed purpose of the document is to instruct fledgeling artists in the preparation of materials and surfaces for Visual Art, in accordance with the methods and standards popular in Florence at the time. Why did the translator for Yale Publications in 1933 choose to follow the term Craftsman rather than Artist, as seems more accurate and direct a translation? I have no answer for this, as it makes little sense given the context historically or modernly.
Roger of Helmarhausen, more commonly known as “Theophilus Presbyter” or just “Theophilus,” wrote a three volume manuscript with the original Latin title “Schedula Diversarum Artium” or “De Diversis Artibus.” Direct translation of these titles in the 19th and 20th centuries were used, resulting in the English titles of “Lists of various Arts” and “On Diverse Arts.” This seems wonderful until one actually reads the documents. While the first third of the manuscript does deal with paint and drawing (and of specific interest, preparing oil paint about 270 years before Jan Van Eyck was born), the majority of the manuscript is focused on the subjects of glass-making, smithing, mining, and engineering. It even provides one of the earliest depictions of the shave horse, being circa 1100-1120 for first compilation. While “On Diverse Arts” might support Crane’s broad sentiment, to use it as an example would suggest that the common labor of digging minerals out of a hillside is an art. Instead, we might see that as a combination or composition of labor (digging) and chemistry (materials science). This, if we think that even Latin is an inviolate and immutable language, we’d be wrong. The applications and connotations don’t work by any apparent logic over time, which is exactly the trouble with language.

Bringing this closer to home, my roommate has a degree in Fine Arts. He assures that he is an artist, not a craftsman, though in many areas the objects we produce are not dissimilar. He operates off of a basic plan when repeating a product, however each is considered to be unique in his mind without following a prescribed methodology for infinitely repeatable results. He considers my methodology to be that of a craftsman. I develop a set plan of action and attempt to follow the process from beginning to end. I also accept that the materials, tools, or any other number of elements, may become variable. Therefore it is not a wholly mechanical process. And there even another word that pollutes the conversation: mechanical. As if once the process is established, an automaton might complete the operation without the need for independent consideration.
Realistically, I believe I put a greater preponderance of forethought into a production than someone who considers themself to be a “Fine Artist.” While “Craftsman” might be apt, it carries popular connotations that are incorrect, and is therefore unsuited to the conversation. It is difficult to truly consider a woodworker to actually be a “paint by numbers” kind of person, even if they try to be. Usually that way will find either frustration, or languish at the low end of realized potential. One might be able to replicate the Mona Lisa to a relative degree by that method, but they will never match or exceed the original.

Neither humility nor hubris is going to help figure the “truth” in this debate. Nor will limited our choices to “Artist” or “Craftsman”.  …Hell, this debate reminds me so much of the old “Tastes Great”/”Less Filling” beer commercials from the 80’s…
So yes, I think it is something else. I think what we do (or at least what I try to do) is a combination of both Art and Craft. I need to know certain techniques to gain a given result. I make a plan to apply those techniques in a selected order and methodology, often to seize upon the possibility of repetition. Variables occur and are both accounted for and in some cases celebrated piece to piece.

Now if there were only a single word in the English Lexicon that was definitively and connotatively correct to sum up this composition of Art and Craft?

Ah, yes: Artisan. That’s right. If it’s Red vs. Blue, the Purple guy is allied to each. I’ll take Obscure Machinima for $200, Alex.



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