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During a recent debate over a bit of poetry passed along to each of us in an e-mail, a dear friend and professional poet made a statement about the difference between craft and art, which I will paraphrase here:

This is the kind of work I classify as folk-type, artless, sincere...of heart not art. It doesn’t have breathtaking imagery, metaphor that opens new doors of perception, language that sings in harmony....none of the elements that characterize original poetry, poetry of power. It’s like the difference between what I see at hobby craft fairs vs. what I see in a good art gallery. I notice immediately if the hobby crafter doesn’t have corners neat, seams straight, edges smooth, colors harmonious, etc, and I want to say “master your craft, kid!” With “art” (whether painting, sculpture, etc) I react primarily to the emotional impact of the piece, and only secondarily to the craft elements. If the artist has sent me a powerful message, and I realize she/he has broken (or bent) the rules of craft, I am even more impressed at her/his artistry....

Come to think of it, I use the same criteria in looking at writing; particularly fiction & poetry, but also some non-fiction. If it informs me efficiently, it’s evidence of good craft; if it moves me in a unique way, it’s art.

My response to these opinions was as follows:

When it comes to types of poetry and definitions of them, I must say that I find it a little elitist to be placing such things in a class “lower” than “art,” or at least insinuating they have less overall value.

Being a craftsman myself (in wood, words and other media), I have always been angered by those who criticize anyone’s effort at artistic expression, whether that expression be accomplished with a hammer, a brush, a pencil, a loom, or plant dye on rock faces. Perhaps the best spoof of critical hypocrisy can be found in the movie LA Story, when Steve Martin is in an art museum describing the emotional impact of a large painting, telling his friends about all the artistic details to be seen. When the camera finally turns to the picture it is essentially blank. That satirical skit depicts the way I think of art critics in general, no matter the genre they are criticizing. They become so enamored with their own scholarship and purported depth of knowledge, they cannot help but fill up page after page with interpretations based on their own opinions rather than any kind of prima-facie evidence or factual knowledge.

As for craft being a mode of informing the observer efficiently, and only art being able to move one in a unique way, I also disagree with that. In fact, it really depends upon the observer or user (“Art is in the eye of the beholder”). I have been moved in unique ways many times by observing the intricate perfection of the woodwork in a classical guitar, the curve of a piece of handmade furniture, or the perfectly efficient design of a tool, all of which would only be considered examples of fine craftsmanship. On the other hand, I would not hang the Mona Lisa in my house on a bet, nor would I pay more than flea-market prices for a Faberge Egg.

Then Again The Novel

The critics’ answer to this, of course, is that I have not experienced enough, or studied enough, or taken enough art appreciation classes; essentially that I don’t have the knowledge and “breeding” to understand and appreciate fine art. Pardon me, but that’s a bunch of cow shit. It is only those whose confidence in their own opinions is so weak, who must justify them with long lists of academic accomplishments and/or life experience.

Critics serve a valuable purpose in the sense that if one learns their likes and dislikes, one can make a fair evaluation of how one might personally react to what is being critiqued. As for being the standard-bearers of true artistic “value,” they are about as useless as male nipples.

Perhaps the worst offenders (to me) are those who teach literature and art appreciation in our schools and colleges. To take a long-dead author’s or artist’s work and interpret it using some kind of academic standards (there is a great example in the film Dead Poet’s Society) may be a fun and interesting exercise. But to then claim that their opinion of what the author or artist was actually saying, of what the symbolism actually means (when often it is not symbolism at all, but straight craft at work), is as ludicrous as any fundamentalist claiming they know exactly what was meant by a phrase in the Bible.

Lessons The Novel

Another question arises in the debate over what is and what is not art, and that is: Is there art in nature? After all, we humanistic types tend to think of nature and evolution as being a set of scientific happenstances, neither craft nor art, but simply fundamental laws and chance at work. Of course, some of the most beautiful painting, writing, sculpture, etc., comes from trying to faithfully copy or depict the randomness found in nature; and no such copy or literary depiction can ever be as good as the original. To say there is art in nature, one must assume there was an artist, and therefore a God or something of the like. But to say there is not, we condemn the work of all those who have tried to depict nature in their art—if there is no art in the original, there is little hope of art magically appearing in a copy. In that case, only the abstractionists and impressionists could be considered real artists.

So what is art and what is craft? Is there some magical artistic line across which a craftperson may eventually move, even though they have never attempted to do anything but perfect their craft? Or is that territory forbidden to those who refuse to study and learn the opinions of critics and the history of “true” art. Is there “accidental” art? Can a craftsperson occasionally cross over that line without knowing it, simply by chance? Perhaps a backwoods mechanic with a third-grade education and a blowtorch could unknowingly create a piece of metal sculpture that would rival in its ability to move the soul like the works of Michelangelo or Van Gogh or DaVinci. But would it ever be recognized as anything more than craftsmanship or “folk art?” All the while “real” artists are shooting paint-filled balloons with guns, swinging on ropes to spread random colors on huge canvases, or painting depictions of Campbell’s Soup cans.

Cute The Novel

I believe it is precisely because of the elitists and critics that many people abandon their quests to become “artists.” I, for example, long ago resigned myself to being a simple craftsman, with little hope of ever becoming a true “artist” in my writing and woodworking careers. After all, what I do is so influenced by craft, so “unschooled,” there is no realistic hope of my ever achieving what critics would describe as “art.” Part of that comes from the commercial aspect of my endeavors; that almost everything I do is (of necessity) aimed at making a buck. In my mind, the true artist, no matter what the critics say, is the one who does what he or she does because they cannot help it, because they simply must, and not because they ever intend to sell or market their work. If I am correct in this assumption, that would mean the real artists of the world would be found mostly in developing countries, or in the back roads and slums of the more “advanced” societies.

It is, I suppose, an inbred trait of the human animal, to criticize, to look down on others and their work. Else how could we ever feel superior, feed our enormous egos? Just as God needs the Devil to justify his/her existence, so do we need our inferiors to make us feel important.

I am reminded here of a conversation I once had with my best friend’s new wife. In fact, it was the conversation that first began my gradual loss of respect for her. A conversation that eventually spiraled down into a well of animosity between us that has separated my friend and me for many years.

Alice [not her real name] had studied anthropology and was an exceptionally intelligent person, with a quick wit and a tongue to match. Since I have an interest in the subject myself, I decided to ask a few questions, thinking I could tap some of her knowledge and wisdom without having to pay for it. I first asked her what was the most interesting society she had ever studied. Her answer was immediate: American society. Since our society is, by all accounts, one of the most complex we know of, I could not really argue with this, though I did bring up some points, like the clicking tongues of the Aborigines, or the architectural marvels of the Incas, the Greeks and the Egyptians. I next asked her what was the most intelligent species on Earth. Again, the answer was immediate. It needed no thought or reflection, and was completely unequivocal: the human species.

The point I am trying to make here goes back to the critics, the academic evaluators, those who consider themselves and their opinions so infallible as to leave no room for discussion. Those for whom debate is only an opportunity to prove their points, not a quest for truth.

How, I asked Alice, could she be so sure that intelligence of a higher degree did not exist somewhere else on the planet? If it did, she responded, we would have heard from it; we would have seen its works; there would be great achievements to document its advancements, etc. Our superiority was evident in the way we had “conquered” nature, turned it to our use, used science to provide us with all manner of sustenance and pleasure. If there was a higher intelligence, where was it? Why do we not know about it? Why has it not conquered us?

Barbara The Novel

I was, to say the least, flabbergasted that one so intelligent, so learned, so seemingly liberal, could be such a fundamental elitist. Perhaps it is my extensive background in science fiction that allows me to step outside the “box” of human experience and imagine a species intelligent enough not to need all those things; not to need to prove anything to us or to any other entity. Or perhaps there is a species that long ago established an equilibrium with nature, after eons of fighting it only to lose again and again. One that has evolved, both accidentally and purposely, both physically and mentally, into a form so compatible with nature and so understanding of the negative consequences of assuming superiority, that it would no more make its superiority known to us than it would commit racial suicide. Indeed, a species that did not even consider itself superior, but only wanted to continue reaping the rewards of eons of trial and error, of learned adjustment combined with natural evolution.

I then asked Alice if she had considered that only a tiny fraction of the inhabitable volume of the Earth was actually ours to see. That of the two basic categories of higher life (water reliant and air reliant), ours was by far the smallest. I asked her if she realized that the age of the Earth was such that numerous entire species, societies, even world-dominant life forms, could have come and gone without leaving so much as a trace of their “achievements,” and that the descendants of those entities may have learned something along the way about how to enjoy life and carry on longer than their poor, stupid predecessors. She scoffed at this idea and continued to cling to her opinion that visible or documentable works were the only criteria by which we should judge species superiority.

I wanted to go on, to carry the argument to its logical end, but I saw there was no chance; that her elitist racial superiority could not be shaken. She (meaning the human race) was it! No ifs ands or buts about it.

In the end, I took the rest of my argument home with me, not wanting to cause a more vehement confrontation. Fact is, I could be entirely wrong and she entirely right, but that’s not the point. The point is, that kind of egotistical racial superiority belies any claim to truth, simply because the truth cannot be found through bias, but only through a clear evaluation of the facts as they are understood. Even at that, truth is more akin to approached infinity than to any evaluation of facts at any given time. Still, allowing that my conjecture may carry some level of truth, I would say that one integral part of the success of the society of dolphins and whales has to have been that they long ago gave up on their egos, killed off their critics, and learned that there really is no difference between craft and art.

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