Art vs. Craft

I enjoyed a lovely conversation about knitting on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Roberts and I exchanged a few comments about knitting and the value of handcrafts and handcrafted items. Shortly after our exchange, he drafted this post, which I think is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. His post triggered a lot of my own thoughts, but it’s taken me a while to decide what I really want to say. I am trying to post carefully and avoid ranting. I will probably still mess this up, but again, sometimes I just need to say things.

Let me begin by reminding you, gentle reader, that I have been obsessively knitting since I gave up my creative career last summer. I have been fully aware that knitting has served as an imperfect substitute for the creative pursuits in which I formerly indulged. I have justified my crafty pursuits by reminding myself–and others–of the advantages over the former path:

Knitting is portable. I can knit anywhere, anytime. I often keep my project bag in my car or put a sock-in-progress in my purse. I can knit and still engage in conversation with other moms, so it is less socially isolating than reading.

Knitting is productive. Yes, I’ve been almost as obsessive about knitting as I was about my other creative pursuits, but at least I have something to show for it. I never felt like I was moving forward with my creative pursuits.

Knitting is guaranteed. Follow the pattern, do the stitches the right way, and I will end up with something recognizable and useful, most likely. Most of my projects turn out the way they should–or at least, close enough to still be useful. When one is engaged in artistic pursuits, there is no guarantee.

This last point brings me to the problem with my latest obsession. I’ve already admitted, here and in real life, that knitting is a way to avoid falling into my former creative pursuits. The faster my fingers fly, the easier it is to avoid thinking about and engaging in that activity which I used to think would be my lifelong career.

But it’s becoming clear that crafting only keeps the creative beast alive. I suppose I knew this already, deep down. I suppose I understood on some level that knitting was a way to keep my creative side alive during this season of parenting teens and tweens.

One has to wonder why I wanted to keep said creativity alive when I repeatedly tell everyone that I have no intention of ever returning to said career. Perhaps, as Mr. Roberts suggests, I wanted to have that connection with the Divine? I wanted to engage in something that required a little piece of myself?

Art is different than craft, as Mr. Roberts suggests. I submit that, perhaps, craft is a station on the road to art–a place one must pass through before one can create art. Craft is the “what” and “how”; art is the “who” and “why.” In other words, I’m crafting when I knit. I follow a pattern, most of the time. I do the what (a hat, a bag, a shawl) and the how (knit, purl, yarn over, bind off), but someone else has done the who (the pattern designer) and the why. Only the artist–the pattern designer–can answer the why.

“Why? Because I had this beautiful Malabrigo worsted fiber and thought it should have a hat pattern designed just for it.”

“Why? Because I wanted a delicate silk shawl to cover bare shoulders on cool summer nights, so I created one.”

“Why? Because . . .”

Because someone should fill the gap.

And therein lies the problem with my former creative pursuits. There are already so many people filling the gap with imperfect craft that I could no longer tell what was art and what wasn’t. My own efforts seemed good to me compared with many in the field, and some few agreed. And yet those efforts which seemed amateurish and unpracticed were the efforts that attained some commercial success. This realization created no small amount of confusion for me, and I had to admit that either 1) I was not a good enough artist to achieve commercial success, or 2) the public at large no longer cares about or recognizes good craft in the pursuit of art.

My mind was decided for me when I began to peruse the efforts of those who are pinnacles of art and craft in my field. My own work is shoddy, amateurish, and pathetic by comparison, and I determined that until I could hold up my work next to those works with some even small measure of pride, I would not share anything with anyone again.

Which led to a new problem: is art really art if it’s not experienced by someone other than the artist?

The odd thing is, when it comes to art, many people mistakenly believe they can skip the craft station. They believe that their passion is enough to produce something worth experiencing by consumers of the art. And when consumers experience shoddy craft and get some measure of enjoyment out of it, they mistakenly believe that “anyone can do that.”

“Anyone can paint. It’s just splatters on a canvas, right?”

“Anyone can be a photographer. I mean, I have a digital camera . . .”

“Anyone can write poetry. Most of it doesn’t rhyme anyway.”

But such beliefs cheapen the art of the Jackson Pollocks, the Ansel Adamses, the Edgar Allen Poes of the world. And when shoddy art achieves commercial success, the Pollocks, Adamses, and Poes lose hope that they will ever be recognized for producing something that is worth experiencing.

The odd thing is, most of the folks who believe that they can create art without first perfecting craft would never assume that they could knit without first learning stitches. The merest suggestion that perhaps one should stop and practice for a while before assuming that one’s art is worth experiencing is considered a piercing insult upon the art itself. It is then that the critic hears “who are you to say” statements.

Hear enough of those and you start to say them yourself. And while beauty is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder as “art” is in the soul of the consumer, most of those consumers are not expecting art. They expect, instead, a momentary thrill akin to eating a supermarket cookie or a McDonald’s cheeseburger rather than the memorable experience of a five-star meal.

Does the artist then have any obligation to cheapen his or her art to appeal to those masses? Indeed, does the artist have any obligation to create art at all? If art–true art, art that is objectively well-done–is not important, then what obligation does the artist have?

I fear we, as a culture, continue our slow separation from the Divine by eschewing good craft, good art in favor of momentary thrills.

It is probably obvious that the cracks are starting to show. I have been without my art too long, and it calls me every day. Ideas pop into my head at the most inopportune times, and I press them down, push them back, pick up my needles or indulge in a book or find one of the thousand daily obligations I have at home to avoid thinking of my art. But every day, it’s harder and harder to keep it back.

My will is a dam holding back my soul, and I don’t know how much longer it can resist the pressure.

But still, I have no desire to return to the career side of the art. I have no wish to disappear into that creative space where everything else is neglected. I don’t know how to keep the creative spirit in balance with the necessary duties of a wife and mother. And even if I could figure out the balance, I have no desire to expose my soul to ridicule and obscurity again.

I ask again–does art have any value if it is only crafted for the sake of the artist?

This is long, and it’s rambling, and I could still write more. I have no answers. I may, perhaps, take this topic up again next time. Until then, your generous input would be most welcome.

Till next we meet . . .

J M

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