Hi Folks; Okay, I’m going to chime in on this one. My authority
comes from several sources; I have two “fine arts” degrees, and I
have 30 years of bench experience in the retail world where "artist"
is a term used purely as a euphemism (and that’s precisely the word I
prefer to use here, as it comes straight from Webster). I also used
to lecture at a university on the history of craft, ironically, for
the art history department.
First, the obvious: artist, craftsman, artisan, etc., are all
social constructs. Less obvious is the fact that these criteria are
subjective on both sides, that of the maker and of the observer, and
the question is not one of ontology but of agreement. Intent is the
key criteria, in my opinion. If the intent is to codify an
aesthetic, this is the job of an artist, at least that’s been the
case since the Renaissance (read Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”).
As for Plato and the neo-Platonists. The epistemological arguments
pair off against these ideas and they force us ever more to keep
seeking new anthologies. Chicken and egg games. Suppose someone who
has conventionally been considered a craftsman wants to put forth a
new aesthetic. What is it to be? If he/she can validate a “process
aesthetic” he/she has a foot in the door, but it is always, as could
be predicted, open to question (read Paul Smith’s “Poetry of the
Physical”). The term “artisan” is less useful. It is used to
describe only the process of making and in my opinion, is rarely used
to argue the weight of the aesthetic of either the “craftsman” or the
"artist". An artisan only exists during the transformation of
materials from one form to another, albeit with skill. Therefore, in
my opinion, the craftsman refers to someone who carries on at least
some of a tradition of a craft, and the roots of that tradition are
generally to be found in the cultural heritage of a community. And,
he or she may be practicing a craft that is imported from another
time or place. Often the word craftsman is used when artisan would
be a more correct term. Now for the shot-over-the-bow for those
so-called artists. The notion that the artist is primarily
concerned with an “image” or “content” is purely a residue of Plato’s
ontology (read Edward Lucie-Smith’s “A History of Craft”). How it
got into popularity can be traced back to Vasari’s attempts to
distinguish the multi-faceted careers of Da Vinci and Michelangelo
from those of the many other equally talented and skilled artists who
stuck to a single technology and set of applications. Now is there
"craft" in the “fine arts” of painting and sculpture? Certainly,
although most artists would dismiss it as incidental. It’s not. But
any more, it’s not culture bound, it’s inbred. The craftsman honors
his/her heritage of making, the artist honors art history (which is
a dubious quadrant of scholastic endeavor, being Eucrocentric in the
extreme, even when it “studies” it’s beloved “tribal” cultures). If
art history doesn’t broaden to resolve the issue of craft, it will be
subsumed into anthropology anyway. Can a craftsman rise in stature
among the fine arts cultural subsets to be called an “artist”? Only
euphemistically (there’s that word again, and yes, I meant to use
Now that I’ve baffled you with bull droppings, let me put it in
An artist is someone who declares himself an artist, and abides by
the codes of recognition that are accepted by the cognoscenti of the
art world, or risks obscurity in his/her own time. It’s a political
position first and foremost. You can always call yourself an artist.
If you want significant others to call you that, you need to master
the politics. (read "Vision and Painting, by Michael Bryson).
A craftsman takes responsibility for applying his/her best physical
skill and sense of form to the making of an object, functional or
otherwise, trying to elicit heightened achievement in his or her
ability to have this accomplishment recognized by the observer. Is
it art? See the above. The way the craft fairs are going, we’re
going to have to start snubbing the so-called “crafters” the same way
"fine" artists have snubbed craftspeople.
An artisan is a handy term to add a small measure of honor to
someone doing a good job transforming materials from one form to
another, but this pertains to objects or events that will be
appreciated by the observer in some measure for their ability to
enrich our lives with satisfying sensual experiences. In other words,
he/she makes beautiful things, cooks delicious meals, makes soulful
music, etc., at best, but could be gardening, decorating store
windows. But it’s likely to be a career more than a pastime. And
the artisan can also be a craftsman, but the term artisan tries to put
him/her more firmly in a non-intellectual, working class distinction.
Before you get the impression that I am critical of those who call
themselves artists and enamored by craftspeople, let me clarify.
It’s not my problem with artists. There are plenty of them,
unarguably entitled to the name, and good ones that I love, but the
"art culture" has lost it’s bearing since DuChamp and ever since,
people like Clement Greenburg have only made matters worse. I prefer
Robbie Hughes (heads up you Aussies!). I’m just tired of hearing the
re-hash on the whole post-modernist circle-jerk. It’s been done . .
. and done and done and done . . .
Craft, on the other hand, had better start working fast and hard to
extricate itself from all the consumer culture schlock that
threatens to tear down the little credibility it has achieved since
the 60’s. I mean, if you call yourself a craftsman, and you find
yourself in a “juried” show next to a tee-shirt vendor, you better
darn well make a fuss about it unless you are the tee shirt vendor.
Everything descends to the lowest common denominator. On a similar
note, if you call yourself an artist, and you find yourself picking
out the blue jeans with just the right amount of paint on them to go
to the gallery opening, don’t go telling me all about your
high-falutin’ aesthetic priorities.
Now shoot this old gray head if you must.
David L. Huffman