Sunday, 28 September 2008

Art and Craft

Clearly, I have no thoughts of my own at the moment. This post, like the last, was sparked off by one of Emma Darwin’s on her excellent blog (if you haven’t read it, I recommend it, one of the best writers’ blogs around).
And, while I’m in confidential mode, posts may be even thinner on the ground than of late in the near future as my family is embarking on the hazardous enterprise of changing internet service provider… I know I need say no more. To paraphrase Captain Oates, I may be some time…
Anyway, on with the post.

What’s the difference between art and craft? And which is novel writing? Or is it possible to do it as either?

Personally, I’ve always felt that unless art has shedloads of craft behind it that it’s just a clever idea (like half a cow in formalin – not even necessarily a clever idea, just a novel one) and not art at all, but that’s just me. Think of the craft which went into the Mona Lisa, Canterbury Cathedral, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Swan Lake.

Obviously, novels have to have craft – nobody produces in excess of 80 000 words that people want to publish and others want to read without demonstrating quite a lot of it – but where is the boundary between workmanlike, knowledgeable application of one’s craft and the extra something which makes a book into a work of art?

I always come back to furniture whenever I find myself having this kind of conversation with anybody.

Making decent furniture requires a lot of craft – you’ve got to know what the basic principles behind any sofa, chair, table or cupboard are. What are the accepted dimensions, how do you make joints which are going to stay joined, what is the best wood for a particular task, how do you finish surfaces….etc
And, if a person who has some natural feeling for making things with wood puts all that knowledge into operation in an intelligent and intuitive fashion, they will produce something which is functional, well built and pleasing to look at in the way that things which perfectly suit their purpose (think Shaker) are pleasing.

So, where does art come in?

OK, let’s narrow our field of vision and think about chairs.

Craft produces a chair that is wonderfully comfortable to sit in, a chair you sink into with a sigh and can remain in indefinitely without fidgetting, a chair which supports, envelops or displays you according to your taste.
But, bring art into the equation and your heart does a little leap every time you see the chair, it makes you think of beauty and timelessness and aspiration, it makes you glad on a level which isn’t just to do with comfortable sitting for weary limbs.

So what’s the analogy with novels?
Craft produces novels which people can immerse themselves in and enjoy for what they offer – plot, character, setting. The reader may forget themselves for a while and finish with a satisfied ‘yes, I enjoyed that’. But craft alone doesn’t produce a book which people will keep thinking about, which will make a reader stop at the end of a paragraph and think about what they’ve just read, which will cause people to re-read sentences, paragraphs – even the whole book, again and again because of the beauty of the words or the perfect encapsulation of the idea they contain.
Art produces books which make people see the world differently, if only for a while; which cause their readers to view their own life in a slightly different way.

So I ask the readers amongst you – do you have a different view of the difference between art and craft?

And as for the writers – do you see yourself as a craftsman/woman or an artist. Or are you both?

I’ll be back when our broadband’s migrated….


David Isaak said...

I just received an e-flyer for a writing course up in LA. It says, in part:

"In...Novel Writing class you'll learn the lost art of craft, uncover your writer's voice, and discover things about yourself and your work you never knew before."

The lost art of craft?

(I also have some doubt about the locution "uncover your voice," but that's off-topic.)

Who knew craft was a lost art? I suppose by symmetry that art must be a lost craft.

Or, as Keats might have said if he'd lived long enough to get around to it:

"Art is craft, craft art"--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Alis said...

The lost art of craft... and I thought I was confused!

Tim Stretton said...

I confess to finding the distinction between "art" and "craft" in this context an artificial one.

The writer puts together a prose fiction of a given length. To do this competently requires a degree of technical skill; this is the part normally referred to as the "craft". But even to get to this stage "art", the deployment of the imaginative faculty, is also required.

Put another way, any novel will combine technical rigour and imaginative fluidity--even the most derivative of works.

What makes some books last, for me at least, is not that they have more "art" or imagination: it's that they are done *better*. And "better" in this context applies as much to the craft as the art. Think about, as an example, that most enduring of favourites Pride and Prejudice. We love it because not only is it a richly imagined and textured depiction of its fictional world, but also because it is such a technical masterpiece. In other words, we re-read it for the craft as much as the art.

Does anyone agree?

David Isaak said...

To be serious for a moment--even though it makes my teeth hurt to do so--I think craft is what you do, and that imagination is a part of craft.

Art may or may not result, and only time can tell for sure. We do what we can in what we choose to do.

Alis said...

For me, art has something to do with beauty, with a 'wow' factor which owes nothing to plot or clever twists or even a structure which works well. Does art - like Keats's thoughts on beauty - capture something of a universal truth that we recognise as rising above whatever vehicle (craft) the author/artist has used?

sexy said...


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