Art Vs. Craft
What's the difference?
This one of my favorite questions to ask people is if they consider themselves an artist or a craftsman, and what they think the difference is. I've never gotten the same answer. I've really never even gotten a similar answer. I think about that a lot. A lot, A lot. I think what I've come up with is probably self evident, but I believe it's worth exploring. This is the closest I've personally ever come to answering it for myself.
Let me preference the following with saying, none of the thoughts presented in this are original, I'm pretty much a dilettante who reads extensively and has cobbled this together. Secondly, I'm not trying to provoke anyone into a debate about creationism or theology, and comments that are posted that strictly serve to proselytize will probably end up deleted.
Okay, just to make sure we're all on the same page, a little bit of history. I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail about some things that I believe to be well understood. I know it won't seem like it at first, but this really is about arts and crafts. (The early part of this piece deals with behavioral modernity, I personally believe in the Continuity Hypothesis as opposed to the Great Leap Forward Hypothesis. If your interested at all in these theories, Check out Curtis Marean's lecture at the bottom of this post. It's really interesting, and you don't need a PhD to understand it.)
Modern Humans, Homo sapiens, appeared about 200,000-150,000 years ago. I'm always asking myself, what defines a human as human as opposed to a deer or a dolphin or a wasp? Aside from obvious physical differences, what do we do that other animals don't? For example, tool making is not exclusive to humans, neither is shelter building.
I believe what makes a Human a Human is our ability to tell stories, and I believe it is this special ability that is as important to our survival as claws on a lion or gills on a fish. How is this significant?
Story telling allows us be successful predictors, which allowed for us to hunt. Why is hunting important? Two reasons. Any access to a new food source is significant, and hunting is the key to our development of complex language.
I believe in the Hunting Hypothesis (however flawed it may be) in so far as, if you are able to communicate with a group, you are more likely to be successful at hunting. Remember, we didn't have jeeps and cross bows. All we had was our feet and rudimentary tools. (Toolmaking being one of the things that is not exclusive to humans.)
If a group of humans is able to communicate successfully, they can make a plan, work together to walk down an animal and attack together which makes them more likely to be successful at a kill than working alone.
More food means more people successfully expressing their genes, which means an evolution of language, the thing that was fundamental in achieving more food. Furthermore, we lack the other physical advantages that other animals have, (claws, wings, fangs, speed, camouflage) but we have the ability to tell stories. Why are stories important? Stories allow us to predict the future.
That's right. We are able to take clues from our environment, place them together and use that picture to predict food. We can look at a hoof print, chewed and broken branches, droppings, and guess that an animal is probably over there. Being able to do that is very different than following a scent trail, coursing, memorizing where a watering hole is, or understanding cause and effect. We don't need highly advanced communication in order to mate, in order to scavenge or gather, in order to have a shelter, but humans do need it in order to hunt.
Therefore, hunting and language goes hand in hand in a chicken vs. egg kind of relationship. As we became better communicators, we became better hunters, which gave us more food, which produced more offspring, and a greater expression in the gene pool. It is interesting to note that as far as we know, there are/were no known primitive cultures/native peoples that are strict vegetarians. It's true, you can look it up. (*side note, if they're Buddhist, Hindu, or any of the big world religions, they are not a primitive culture) You are actually more likely to find strictly carnivorous tribes. Massive agriculture (agricultural revolution type agriculture) and pastoralism (husbandry/livestock raising)are fairly recent developments in our human history.
Following this, we see how language, communication, and story telling is at the core of our successful survival and our evolution. (Feral Children research also provides some interesting insight into how we develop and use language.)
This is also worth exploring because then we see how saturated human kind is with story telling. It's why advertising is successful, why we love and despise public figures, it's why we gossip, it's why we cling to archetypes, it's what wins elections, it's why we have therapists... it's absolutely everything. Stories and story telling is what defines us as human. It's how we relate to the world to each other and ourselves. It makes sense that something so key to our survival would be expressed over and over ad nauseum in every aspect in the way that we live.
So where do art and craft come in? I believe that art is actually story telling. Art is the story that the artist is trying to tell. It is the painting, the dance, the song, the play, the book. All of these are stories the artist is trying to communicate to the audience. Art is the communication.
I believe this is fundamentally true from the Lascaux cave paintings to Tomas Kincaid's paintings of light. The story may be “These are bulls, this is what their hoof prints look like, and this is me hunting them,” to “Here's a pretty house with pretty flowers and pretty colors. Isn't it charming?”
Both of those things are stories. What about abstract art? What about artists like Theo van Doesburg? Perhaps the story is as simple as “This combination of color and shapes evokes this feeling in me, and I'm trying to convey that to you.” Or in music with something like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, the story is “I had an experience that felt like this, and this combination of sounds feels the same way.”
So what about craft? In my experience, crafters have a far more difficult time describing exactly what craft is in relation to art, and at worst, it's considered some domestic lesser pursuit. You can look up craft in the dictionary and find several definitions for the noun or verb version, but the one I'm going to use here is “to make or manufacture (an object, objects, product, etc.) with skill and careful attention to detail.”
My belief is, if art is story telling, craft is the object, or the creation of an object that allows you to enact a story. Rather, it is a prop in the story a person is attempting to live.
Out of the two, Art vs. Craft, this actually makes Craft far more intriguing to me.
As I stated before, animals use tools, have homes, and some animals even horde apparently useless objects they find appealing, but only humans actually make and collect objects specifically to enact and project a story.
For example, A male peacock with particularly vivid feathers and a healthy appearance will probably easily attract a mate. But all those things are an expression of it's genes. Compare that to a CEO in a well tailored suit and a Hermès tie, or a Karo woman who's scars and coiled hair signify her age and ranking. Those are things that are carefully chosen and worn to project a story, rather than something that is involuntarily expressed through DNA.
This interaction between the person and the object can also be extremely intimate and revealing. Consider the following examples.
You are a potter and you make a lovely wide rimmed bowl to sell. You imagine a young hip couple who keeps it on their coffee table to put mail and paper clips in it, or you imagine a mother using it as a fruit bowl, placed on the kitchen table.
You go to the hardware store and you see a gleaming heavy set of wrenches. They feel good and your hand, and you imagine your self fixing the faucet with them, and then feeling self sufficient and proud of yourself.
This is also an interesting place to briefly explore what craft reveals about ourselves.
You are a jewelery maker. You make a pair of jade and silver tear drop earrings. You imagine yourself wearing them to the corner cafe for breakfast, where Attractive Person notices them and comments on them, leading into a conversation which leads to a coffee date.
You find yourself picking through Etsy and you find a beautiful heavy polished stone necklace. You think to yourself, “The woman who would wear that piece would be bold and unconcerned with trends. I would like to be like that woman.”
When viewed in this context, we see that through our interaction with crafts, whether obtaining or creating, we are actually telling and enacting stories. Therefore, crafting is the making of object that become props in the story that people attempt to live.
To recap, we have established that story telling is key to our successful survival, and art and craft are a function of story telling. I wonder if our distant ancestors had a more thorough understanding of this than we do, which brings me to my next point.
Until fairly recently (less than 10,000 years ago) human spirituality was expressed through animism. Animism is a slippery concept, but generally it is defined as
1. The belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena.
2. The belief in the existence of spiritual beings that are separable or separate from bodies.
3. The hypothesis holding that an immaterial force animates the universe.
What does this mean, basically? In the broadest sense, people paid special attention to and respected things that were useful or dangerous. This sometimes was expressed in a belief that they were imbued with a specific spirit. (I use the word “spirit” as opposed to “god” because I believe “god” has a weightier subtext that is misleading)
I make this distinction because these spirits are generally not omniscient, and they had very specific roles and abilities, sometimes almost mundanely practical.
People tend to think that animistic spirits are limited to nature, like trees or animals or rainfall, or to oversee events like birth, sleep, marriage and death, but they are commonly found in objects as well. In many animistic traditions where you find “nature spirits” you will probably also find spirits specific to dwellings, food, weapons, and tools.
It is the tool spirits that I find most relevant to this discussion. If crafting is creating a prop that serves the story one is trying to live, and stories are paramount to our successful survival, surely the tools that make those objects, that enable that craft are terribly powerful. It certainly makes sense that people would assign them spirits, and that like other spirits in this tradition, they would be revered and placated.
This seems to be almost common sense, even today. Anyone who's smashed their fingers with a hammer or nearly lost a digit to a circular saw knows that tools are to be respected and not handled lightly, but it seems to me this respect takes on a deeper meaning when we acknowledge the significance that crafting actually has in our lives.
Where does this leave us? Well, next time a pretentious art fag looks down their nose at you and your embroidered tea towels, hopefully you'll think back to this discussion and take pride in knowing that you and other crafters the world over are not so subtlety influencing peoples lives. That's some powerful stuff.