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Art vs. Craft

Todd Powelson

Anna and I were asked to share our thoughts on Art vs. Craft at the Utah Arts Alliance this last Friday for the opening of their Craft Lake City show, and I thought I’d post what I put together. The post is a bit longer than what I normally shoot for, but I hope you still enjoy.

Laocoön – Roman copy of the Greek Sculpture

There has always been some weird power struggle between art and craft. It seems to me that historically the definition has never been static, but changes depending on what culture values at a specific point in time.

In ancient Greece, which helped lay the foundation for the whole Western artistic tradition, visual artists weren’t called artists. A sculptor or painter was labeled as a craftsman. To the ancient Greeks, the true art forms were mainly the performing arts. Music, drama, and even literature. Do we still see it that way? Would any of us say that classical Greek sculpture wasn’t really art?

This attitude carried through to the Renaissance. It could be that the definition changed because during Medieval times, through and well beyond the Renaissance, the majority of people couldn’t read. Instead, they learned about the world by looking at religious paintings, sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts. So, the mystery around art, and the myth of the artist was born. Still, I don’t think we’d appreciate Michelangelo nearly as much if he didn’t thoroughly understand his craft and it’s tradition.

Another reason there is confusion over the terms today might also be because with the Industrial Revolution and the two World Wars, art during the 20th century changed, along with the rest world. To reflect those changes artists often tried to break their links to the past. But the truth is, even the most modern and postmodern work has its roots in tradition, building a bridge between the future and the past.

When I was younger, I valued the visual and plastic arts to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Looking back, I see this as very self-limiting. I tend to paint and draw in a very cubist style. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come across incredible patterns and geometry in quilts and other fiber arts that have expanded my visual language and style.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with a number of dancers and these last few years. Projecting my work behind the stage during a performance, sometimes even having the dancers interact with my work. I’ve learned more about movement, costuming, and the human figure through dance than I ever could have by sitting around looking at a live model holding the same pose for hours on end. I don’t mean to say that figure drawing has no value, because I’ve done plenty of that too. A creative person just has to remain curious and learn wherever they can.

New and relatively unexplored computer formats have enriched my artwork in ways I cannot begin to guess, adding so much creative potential it is overwhelming. What is amazing to me is digital art is so very young, just getting it’s legs. And still people try to somehow separate my digital work from my drawings and paintings. As if one method has more value than another. The computer is just a creative tool I might choose to express an idea.

Photography was dismissed by a lot of people when it was first introduced, but now that it has a little history behind it and a few individuals have mastered the craft, most of us can appreciate the art-form. Whats funny is even acrylic paint was dismissed when it was first introduced in the 40s because certain people living in their ivory towers thought nothing good could ever come from plastic paint.

I’ve heard it said many times over that the true difference between art and craft is utility. Artwork is only meant to be looked at and serves no real purpose, and craft is functional. Personally, I don’t buy that definition. There is nothing more pleasurable for me than to hold a beautiful piece of artwork in my hand, and then take a drink from it. Or to see somebody wearing a piece of art, like one of Anna’s amazing handmade outfits.

It doesn’t matter what materials were used, but how well a specific technique can carry an idea. In the end, the only thing that matters is the way a piece makes you feel.

It’s easy to hold negative judgements of other points of view when we cling too tightly to our own. It’s easy to diminish others while trying to define ourselves, but identifying with a single view is limiting. Talent and dedication may vary from person to person, but I think that art and craft are the same thing.

I can’t remember now where I first read the following quote, but I know it fit with how I feel:

“If we are able to view craft and art as a part of a continuum, and if we can allow room for ourselves and others on that continuum, then there is no more power struggle between art and craft. Staying curious will automatically create opportunities for learning.”

Todd Powelson
Todd Powelson works as a Graphic Designer, Illustrator, and Visual Artist.

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