Saturday, March 10, 2007

At one point the term "art" referred only to those things traditionally used for the adornment of churches and cathedrals. So today, when people talk about "fine arts," they are generally talking about painting, sculpture and architecture. The rest need not apply, despite the quality of the work or its artistic vision. Whether it is wood or clay, or basketry by Leon Niehues shown in the photo at left, it seems the proper term is "craft."

Last night as my wife sat on the couch reading the local paper, I picked up Leon's basket, feeling compelled to hold it and feel the intensity of attention that went into its making. While paintings may be best viewed at a distance, a finely crafted object like the basket presents an invitation to closer scrutiny. It must be held to discover its essential qualities. In holding the object one cannot escape the more personal connection with its maker and his or her intent.

There is a difference between what is called "art" or "artistry" and what we might call "craft" or "craftsmanship." While "art" is considered the higher term, the fact of the matter is often reversed. While art is often engaged in concept, egotism and pretense, craft is often where the higher dimensions of human intentions and aspirations unfold.

I can give you a couple examples.

On my 50th birthday, I went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. It is a long drive, from Eureka Springs but I wanted to spend a special day with some of my favorite objects in the Museum. On display that month was a collection of very large wooden sculpted bird nest like objects, nailed together from common building material. As museums often do, there was a video playing, showing the artist at work, using a large gouge to "sculpt" the wood. As a craftsman, and being well versed in the processes of shaping wood, I went over to the real work to look for the markings from that tool. Guess what? The video was just for show--an effort to suggest integrity in work for which there was no excuse. I went from piece to piece and never found the markings of the gouge on any piece in the exhibit. There were the markings of grinders, skill saws, and recipro saws.--all marks of expedience. The work had all been done with coarse tools, quickly, carelessly and without regard for craftsmanship. Of course, being the only craftsman in sight, I was probably the only one to know. I felt like the child viewing the emperor in his new clothes.

More recently, I attended a sculpture exhibit and was awed by the craftsmanship present in a large marble carving. But the piece that won the competition was a piece that occurred by accident when a kiln shelf collapsed in a potter's kiln, congealing pots, old glazes, kiln shelf supports and broken slabs of kiln shelf in an interesting and colorful mass. It is important to find beauty in the surprise occurances; the serendipity of the creative process. It is even important to salvage what we can of our failures and laspses of attention. Both the artist and the judge found beauty and merit in that work. But to elevate the random happenstance of beauty over the conscious intent of well crafted work explains a lot about the state of the arts in America. Form and pretense are valued over substance and integrity hands down.

It is important that our culture recognize and reward attention to detail, caring craftsmanship and the personal integrity that one finds when heart, soul, intellect are equally engaged through the work of the hands. I wish you could hold the basket in the image above. There is no better way to engage with the essential qualities of an object that to hold it in your own hands.

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