But is it art?

August 26, 2009

Woodturning: art vs. craftPMILL

This question has been kicked around a long time, by a lot of people smarter than I. So I don’t expect to add anything original, but I would like to pass along an idea I find appealing.

The question has been on my mind for decades. Early on, I made my living as a Commercial photographer (note the capital C) and often wondered if my images, however artfully done, could be called art. I concluded no. I proudly considered myself a craftsman. Still do.

I was once invited, by the chairman of the Art Department at a college where I worked, to talk about photography to one of his classes. I recall one student asked me what kind of pictures I liked to take best.  I horrified all present when I replied, “Them what pays the most.”

Around that same time I figured out I could be very creative for a price, but it seemed artists were motivated to work whether or not a check was involved.  Hmm.

I’ve been paying serious attention to woodturning lately. I’ve sat through hundreds of demonstrations, read extensively, and talked with a lot of turners. I’ve also eyeballed thousands of turned objects (and carved, textured pierced, colored, and inlaid), which range from craptacular to exquisite. I’ve produced pieces I showed with pride—and some firewood.

Where is the line between art and craft? Does it matter? Are they the only categories to be considered? In his wonderful book, Woodturning Design, Mike Darlow opens his discussion of this question by admitting there is no clear demarcation. Huge gray area.

As he explores the subject further he says, “A perceived difference between art and craft concerns quantity. Manufacturing is often concerned with huge quantities, craft permits batch production, but an essence of art works is that each is unique.”

So, if I make only one, it’s art; if I make ten, it’s craft; if I make 1,000, it’s manufacturing?  Hmm.

My grandson’s high-school art teacher offers the explanation that crafts are three-dimensional objects that have a practical purpose; art is two-dimensional (!) and exists only to appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Hmm. Hmm.

Is it all about the money?

I was surprised once, walking through a display of turned objects at a symposium, when a fellow next to me said, “Isn’t that a nice piece? I wonder what he gets for those.” I was satisfied to agree that yes, it was a lovely piece.  The idea of market value didn’t enter my mind.

It seems that as a turner progresses he (she) more or less naturally grows into the idea of selling his work. Makes sense, I guess. When one runs out of room at home, and friends and relatives no longer chortle with glee over another cherry burl doodad, what’s to be done? Hey, I know, I’ll sell it!

There is a market for this output, and better work brings higher prices. So it is certainly logical to relabel one’s shop a studio and rebrand oneself not as a mere craftsperson, but as a person of unusual, (mystical is even better) talent. An artist. There’s more money in it.

I came across a turner in the UK who blogs that this is a good thing—the higher prices some fetch are good for the craft (oops, art) as a whole. We should encourage these turners. If money is the test, he may have a point.

A purer test

For what it’s worth, I’d like to pass along for your consideration an idea I’ve warmed to over the years. It is very simple but its greatest appeal is simply that it strikes me as obviously true. Here it is:


Craft is about the object. Art is about the idea.


There you go. Cuts through the blather, doesn’t it? Well, most of it; still leaves us plenty of gray area to debate where to slot any particular piece. But one thing seems clear: it makes it a little tougher to perceive most* turned objects as art, doesn’t it?

I think so, and that’s okay with me. I always thought it a high compliment to be considered a craftsman.

*We have all seen works that are jaw-dropping gorgeous. Inspired and inspiring.  No problem calling their makers artists.

BTW, have you noticed how many of these pieces are barely identifiable as turnings? So much has been done to them off the lathe one can hardly discern what was done on the machine.

So what?  I don’t know. What do you think?