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Art versus Craft?

The mid-winter solstice has past, snow continues to fall on the ranges, and when the cloud lifts and the sun shines, Mt Buller shines like a beacon. I love to watch the big sky here, it offers a panorama of scenes with time and weather. Creatives are known to be curious people, not averse to change and risk; they often have many interests and can find it hard to narrow their field of reference. If you think about this it is quite logical, they seek new input to inspire their imaginations. Professional artists will often choose to relocate to new environments for a 'refresh'.

I have asked myself what my motivation is in writing this blog, and it is about sharing thoughts that I have, that I think may be of interest and helpful to others who wish to create. Even though I went to Art College and taught Art for many years, the mystery and challenges of art making are very real to me still. I have seen others wrestle with self-doubt and question their motivations and abilities, as have I. In my first post I mentioned the perceived division between Art and Craft as this has been a stumbling block for me personally from day one and I have spent a long time searching for answers as to why. I am keen to share some historical background to better understand this disunion, as the past teaches us much.

In ‘western/European’ history, prior to the Renaissance, individuality was just not a thing. In other cultures, it was much the same. If you had artistic skills, your client base was narrow, Art was for the god’s and royalty. The skilled artisans followed the style guide of their era; the achievements of ancient and classical civilisations were each monumental, but devoid of diversity. If you were fortunate enough not to be a slave, you may have thrown a pot, whittled a spoon or woven cloth, and I dare say added local cultural motifs, but overall, you had precious little time for such things as you spent most of your waking hours toiling just to survive.

The origin of the word ‘Artisan’ is Italian, circa 1538, meaning to instruct in the arts. We know this was an important time for the arts, but what was so special about the Renaissance artist? The rediscovery of lost classical knowledge and aesthetic facilitated a wondrous time in Art, labelled a rebirth. It was a defining moment in human consciousness. For the first time the worth of a person began to be judged on what they as an individual could do. Curiosity now became an asset, whereas previously it was ill advised. Now, the son of a dairymaid, Leonardo da Vinci, could become one of the most celebrated artists of all time. With the support of his patron, the infinitely curious young Leonardo honed his skills as architect, engineer, inventor, sculptor and painter. Of equal importance, and the two are interdependent, Art was no longer just for church and king. The client base began to broaden with the emergence of the merchant class. They may not be royals, and their tastes still focussed largely on the ecclesiastic, but they had money and they wanted nice stuff too. Families such as the Medici’s became patrons to a growing number of artists who could then make a living from their unique artistic abilities.

As time went on, ironically, the Renaissance established a hierarchy within the Arts - architecture, painting and sculpture identified as the ‘High Arts’, ranking above the so-called ‘minor’ decorative arts. Our ‘Artisan’ was a person who did work that required a special skill, someone who made things with their hands. They may have been a painter and an architect, but the term was not used to define them, it was the tradesperson who acquired this moniker. The western Art world conformed to this division/definition for several hundred years until the industrial revolution upset the status quo. The rise of the machine age meant your special skills, the essential human ‘holistic’ ability to make from nought to finished product lost value. Human labour became just a cog in the giant wheel of mechanised manufacturing. The factory workers life was hard, fraught with danger and soul-less. Principles of design were abandoned in the manufacturing process. All this served to deepen the rift between art and craft, and the artisan was in danger of extinction until………(to be continued)

I recently heard the acclaimed science fiction/social equity activist Adrienne Maree Brown, quote her friend Terry Marshall, who said that we live in an imagination battle. Reality is in the eye of the beholder, the majority of whom are unfortunately under the influence of popular culture and style. Keep this in mind if you are tempted to under value your artistic merit. My next post will unpack a movement that sought to challenge this grim imagining with a different reality.


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