I just read a piece in The New York Review of Books entitled "Knowing How" by Susan Tallman. It is a review of three books dealing with art and its relationship with craft. She writes: "Anyone who has met the art world knows that painting rules the roost," and then observes: "Visual art may sit at the top of the prestige pyramid, but it occupies a tiny corner of human productivity and consumption."
The distinction of "art" from "craft" began in the Renaissance, when a "sea change" (as she described it) occured making painters and sculptors more like poets and philosophers than craftspeople. Then in 1648, in France, an official line was drawn between "artist" and "artisan." Fast forward to the industrial revolution where the factor of machine vs. handmade debate entered the fray.
Since then, reactions such as the Arts and Crafts and similar movements as well as counter-revolutions have staked out ideological positions regarding art and artisanship, arts and crafts. We, as appreciators of art as well as thrifty consumers, are ambivalent. We want high craftsmanship (like custom made goods) while having the easily available option of mass produced goods at much lower prices.
Marcel Duchamp wrote:
"The word 'art' interests me very much. If it comes from Sanskrit, as I've heard, it signifies 'making.' Now everyone makes something, and those who make things on a canvas with a frame, they're called artists. Formerly, they were called craftsmen, a term I prefer. We're all craftsmen, in civilian or military or artistic life."
Pictured here is a desk made by Art Espenet Carpenter.
Considering the "sea change" in the Renaissance – with painters and sculptors being considered more like poets and philosophers – Mildred Constantine, who was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art for 23 years – has this observation:
''. . . the distinction between a crafts maker and a true artist is precisely that the former knows what he can do and the latter pursues the unknown.''
So, then, the difference between art and craft may have nothing to do with the media or material. The difference is that artists pursue the "unknown." By that measure, painters who churn out, say, street scenes of Paris for sale to tourists as souvenirs, are crafts makers. And wood workers like Espenet are artists.
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