Craft and art; arts and craft

In a comment to my post on Richard Sennett’s new book The Craftsman, Moriah raises the issue of art vs. crafts, artists vs. craftsman. She writes that originally she had thought that “Artistes come up with original ways to solve the same ol’ problem. Craftsmen implement existing ideas.” But that now she thinks: “I don’t have an answer to this question anymore. Yes, I used to, but now I think there has to be a measure of both art and craft (skill) involved in each, most likely at different percentages along the spectrum.”

Patricia replies: “Mojo, interesting question. If we divest artistry of its romantic baggage, as William suggests, I think the answer would be ‘No.'”

Moriah also mentions:

“When I think of the word “craft,” I think of the medieval guilds: the stonemasons, the goldsmiths and the other metal workers, the gem cutters, the embroiderers, the tailors. You went to apprentice and there were levels you attained to master. Were any of these people less artists than craftsmen?”

Funny you should mention that, Moriah.

Sennett discusses an Italian goldsmith (I’m afraid I can’t recall his name, and my library renewals have run out) who was a true artist in the sense that he pushed the forms and tropes of goldsmithing to create unique, detailed, beautiful objects. He was also, in another sense, a bad goldsmith — he didn’t pass as much of his knowledge of technique on to his apprentices as he probably could have. The same is true of Stradivarius. Both took their craft and elevated it, took the results to new levels, were men of genius. And both distributed the tasks of creation to workers but without passing on much of the knowledge that was behind the tasks. This is a tragedy. Now, of course, there’s not telling that their apprentices and workers would have been able to combine everything (the techniques, the planning, the vision) that goes into creating a piece of worked gold or a violin and have been able to produce anything that matches their master. But — none of them got the chance.

Now. Notice some of the words I used in the previous paragraph: Forms and tropes. Unique. Detailed. Beautiful. New levels. Genius. These are all words that we often apply to those we call artists and the work they produce. And yet here these words are being applied to craftsman — and deservedly so (in my opinion but also in the opinions of many — if someone is prepared to argue that Stradivarius was not an artist, go for it). And what’s more, by using these two examples one might then be arguing for the notion of genius. But as Sennett points out, much of their genius could have been passed on, but because of their notion of themselves as artists, as unique craftsman (and who doesn’t want to set themselves apart in this way?), they failed the Medieval code of passing on knowledge.

I don’t want to get into a rehearsal of the entire development of notions of art and the artist in Western thought. I’m not really qualified to do so. But I would like to mention a few things before I get into how I think all this applies to our current time and situation.

First: Yes, genius, originality, uniqueness are all attributes that are part of that romantic baggage struggle with. And they may be valid attributes, but a big part of what drove the idea of branding creations with these attributes was the drive to validate copyright as a social and legal concept. Artists (especially writers) needed to wrest some amount of control (or at least a cut of the profits) from the publishers and typesetters. Copyright was a way of doing that.

Second: For awhile irreproducibility was a mark of art — creating something that in its physicality and/or complexity someone else couldn’t reproduce. Or in other words, the point of being a patron of a painter, sculptor, poet was for them to create works just for you that you could then display with the confidence of knowing that nobody else has the same thing. I can afford to be distinctive. Certainly, costliness of materials and the amount of time it takes to make a work also are part of it (to differentiate from those who crafted their own unique works) as is ornamentation. All those things that add layers to the utility of an object.

Third: As we know only too well, the rise of mass media and literacy also led to the romantic baggage that accrues to the arts himself (and herself — but that came later). This was something both the artists and the publishers/gallery owners were complicit in. The work doesn’t sell itself — the creator is part of the package. And the more interesting (and scandalous) the creator — the more they become a personality (a persona) — the more likely the public will become interested in buying the work and even more importantly in buying the next thing created by that person. The cult of the author, the composer, the artist, the actor, the singer, the director (the auteur) would have been impossible without newspapers (and later radio and television ) driving the creation of the cult.

I don’t know that I want to abandon any of those three things. After all, I sign my posts. I don’t work in anonymity. And I would be pretty pissed if somebody took all of AMV’s content (and even more so the fiction I’ve published) and republished it without permission. And I’m sure that some of what I do online is to build up romantic baggage around my person. Who doesn’t want to be adored and admired?

And for awhile all that stuff worked pretty well. Artists still got ripped off by the dealers, the sellers. But many of them still did okay. And sure, once something become popular and/or easy to reproduce (the rise of genre novels, lithography, etc.), artists had to push things to the extremes. I mean, the beauty of performance art is that nobody can put it on a book bag or umbrella. I also don’t want to reduce everything to economics — certainly socio-political and religious change and events affected artists and their work, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. But really, what happened is that certain modes of creation and certain styles within those modes became labeled as art and other stuff was just “crafts.” And so we end up with visual artists vs. designers/illustrators. Architects vs. workers. Fashion designers vs. tailors. Textile artists vs. quilters/knitters. Authors vs. genre writers and technical writers and copywriters. Actors vs. actors. Directors vs. producers/set designers/actors/writers/camera operators, etc. And one side gets all the press and often more money (and if not money, honors) and the other side is seen as mere craftsmen. Anything is that seen as purely for expression, without taint of utility (and in many cases without taint of popularity), is privileged.

Of course, lip service is paid (from some quarters) to the notion of craft being an important part of being an artist. But in most instances, it’s reduced to the idea of practice (of course, practice is important) of paying your dues. It is never an end in itself — it’s what you do so that you can create the work of genius and be the Artiste/Author/Auteur. And crafts (or at least what are considered to be traditional crafts (esp. those that have a certain folk/homespun quality), such as glassblowing, quilting and woodworking now find their place (somewhat) in the academy. Still labeled as crafts, though, and often the works that receive the most acclaim are those that diverge from communities of practice. And design is at least given a nod (although for the most part, design is meant to be consumed — not practiced. It’s giving the people the chance to consume a work of genius (e.g. Target and its roster of name designers). But for the most part, romantic notions of art, artists and artistic creation are still with us.

However, as we move into the 21st century, there’s a whole host of problems with the old model: everything is now easily reproducible — graphics and manufacturing technologies have seen to that. Genres continue to splinter and become every more specialized. Copyright is increasingly under siege (and difficult to enforce). And with the Internet, everybody is a personality, a persona, an avatar. And the means of publication are cheap and easy to use. And everybody is a genius. I mean, not really, but certainly levels of access to information and education are at an all time high in human history.

So like it or not, the romantic baggage is being jettisoned, piece by piece. I’m not entirely happy with what’s replacing it. As Theric recently reminded us, blogging can interfere with other forms of writing. And I personally think copyright is important — originators of work need to be paid fairly for their effort (although current copyright law protects corporations more than original artists). And I don’t want to fully remove the challenge that good art often provides us; the way it can jerk us out of our current modes of thinking and living.

But it seems to me the proper response to this challenge to the romantic notions of art and artists (and post-romantic — I think that even all the attempts in the 21st century to tear and gnash at the romantic — the punk and the Dada and the deconstructed or random performances — only reinforced the notions further [and were quickly assimilated by the tastemakers, serving only to further demarcate them from the popular]) is most definitely NOT to prop up the cult of the artist. To get increasingly silly and/or political in our judgments of what has value and what doesn’t. To sniff at those whose tastes diverge from ours. Nor is it to fully embrace the popular, or at least the popular the relies mainly on personality, on media creation, on being famous for being famous (with all the attendant un-scandalous scandals).

Rather, I think the proper response is to:

1. Restore a sense (and practice) of craftsmanship to our modes and means of expression no matter whether we seem them as “art” or
“crafts.” Discuss, model, teach, reward, champion the practice of craftsmanship.

2. Work to build communities that support craftsmanship and the development of the various genres/sub-genres/types of art and communities that we are interested in. And especially communities that welcome and mentors newcomers and that facilitate the continued participation, growth and support (financial and moral) of veterans. Avoid stagnation. Avoid resentment of people who make it big or who want to branch out and experiment. Avoid poor treatment of noobies.

3. Work to create and support models of distribution, marketing and payment that allow us the time and needed materials to practice craftsmanship.

4. Embrace models of creation that don’t rely on a sole individual creating work out of thin air: pastiche, group projects, parody, sampling, etc.

5. Support work that responds to other work in obvious or oblique ways. And even more importantly commit to consuming the work of others so that one is not creating in a vacuum. I’d like to see more “I can do that better/differently/in this way.” Or, “Wow, that made me think of this.” Or, “I took what you did and riffed off of it and this was the result.”

I think that a lot of this is happening already. I’ll point out some examples in the comments section and welcome other. But I wanted to lay my argument out in a full post. So yes, I agree with Patricia. The answer is: no. That doesn’t mean that I don’t love works that were created under the influence of the romantic notion of art. Or that I don’t fall prey to some of those notions myself. But here’s the real point: the beauty of the field of Mormon arts, and Mormon fiction in particular, is that it is still young enough that if enough people embrace what I lay out above, we can do some real interesting things. Bluntly put: there’s just not enough money to be made in writing Mormon-focused work for it to be a field where the romantic baggage automatically needs to show up and come with. If it is to be a labor of love, why not let it be one that involves community, craftsmanship and conversation?

23 thoughts on “Craft and art; arts and craft”

  1. .

    Not to suddenly switch sides on the blog debate, but the supporting-each-other, building-communities thing can be done well in an online atmosphere. Publishing books and paper magazines takes risk; publishing a blog doesn’t–not really.

    I wonder, Mr Morris, if you would comment on this: Did Popcorn Popping die (in your opinion) because no one in the community was willing to “sacrifice” their work to building the community? For instance, I will generally try to sell something in the national market first, even if it is Mormon themed. And publishing in a small online zine doesn’t really impress anybody, let’s be frank. But it’s still important from the p-o-v of community building.

    Anyway, good post. I need to go pick up my kid so I’ll have to respond more thoroughly later.

  2. I think the main reason Popcorn Popping died is that we tried to work with a wide variety of talent levels and the editing work was rather time consuming. Which isn’t to say that the editing work others do isn’t as (or even more) time consuming. It’s hard work. And work that the folks behind Irreantum, Segullah, etc. don’t get enough credit for. I think we underestimated exactly how much it would take to do something weekly. I also thought that more of the AML crowd would embrace the idea with submissions (and then possibly with editing help).

    And all of us that were doing the main managing editing are/were at points in our professional and family careers where it was difficult to find time and energy. Plus we all had other projects that we weren’t willing to sacrifice.

    However, I do think your point about sacrificing work to build community is interesting. I guess I don’t see it as that much of a sacrifice. Why should I care about the calcified literary preferences of the East Coast elite? The MFAed, the tenure-tracked, the fellowshipped and grant-ed? I’m overstating things, of course. And I’m not suggesting that Mormon art should develop in a vacuum. Heaven knows we let artists get away too much with a lack of craftsmanship. But neither should we seek after validation that is only ever going to be grudgingly given and that often only comes when we tune our works to ethoses that just might not lead to the best/most interesting/most charitable/most entertaining/most lovely and praiseworthy expressions of the Mormon experience.

  3. Art today seems to be market driven rather than patron driven. The Renaissances had the Catholic Church, the Medici Family and a market for rich folks wanting portraits. 21st century big “C” contemporary art is grant and foundation driven, providing entertainment and parties for, well, rich folks. The rest of us can pay our ten bucks and go into the big white space look at piles of sand and read the wall text about what the artists it trying to say. Off course there is home decoration driven art. Some artists refer to it as wall furniture. Is there “real” art out there being made? I say yes, you just have to look for it.

    Romantic notions of art are indeed out the window replaced by art galleries, managers and reps. Its marketing baby! Can we as “Mormon” artists fit into this model? Not if the work is focused on a purely LDS audiences, speaking a language that only they can understand. I don’t think the money or understanding of innovation is quite there yet in our Church culture. Maybe in the future it will change after the illustrations in the Ensign no longer look like they were painted in the late 1950s or early 60s. It is my hope that as the Church expands into more diverse populations the sophistication level will rise. I know this may sound arrogant but my brother who lives in Utah and appreciates the arts says “We are so isolated in Utah that we refuse to admit we are in fact hicks.” As a former Utahan, I was practically paralyzed by hickness when I moved to Santa Fe. I’m still a hick of sorts.

    Can we as “Mormon” artists have a dialogue with each other? Yes, with the help of the internet. I don’t live in our “cultural center”, Utah, so my contact with like minded artists making LDS based artwork is limited. ( I also paint landscapes, so I have a larger group of artists to talk with here in New Mexico and a larger audience in that regard.) If you look at early Church architecture and decoration craftsmanship was top notch. I think for us to succeed good craftsmanship can be what sets us apart in any artistic endeavor we pursue. Also our content needs to touch many different folks, LDS and Non-LDS, were they live spiritually with out denying our own spirit. We have skilled artists in our community but I don’t yet see a real market for new provocative ideas. Blogging with you folks has helped me feel like there is a community of artists that I have common experiences that can be shared but I don’t want my art to just be an overblown hobby. It needs to sustain me spiritually and financially.

  4. “Also our content needs to touch many different folks, LDS and Non-LDS, were they live spiritually with out denying our own spirit.”

    Thank you for saying this, Larry. I’m with you on this. I think those of us who have moved outside the Mormon sphere, attending workshops with a variety of people and at times hardly any Mormons or none at all, have hopes that our art will have some effect upon others who are not Mormon and perhaps who are not likely to ever be. Not because we want our art to be “accepted by the world,” but because we have strong feelings for our art and friends who are not Mormon and want to be among them in a meaningful, productive way. Art fields, I’ve found, are highly charged, spiritual fields, both inside and outside the church, though the spirituality I’ve seen in artists outside the church, or the reaching for it I’ve seen in their work, is not necessarily recognizable to many LDS. Yet my experience is that if you have good intent and some skill, the spiritual import of your work will satisfy.

    I’ve been thinking on writing a post about this very topic but I have such strong feelings about it that I’m not sure how to arrange the thinking.

  5. Wm, thank you for this post. I would like to comment on your points numbered 1-5:

    1. Restore a sense of craftsmanship. I agree this is vitally important, but I wonder who of us has the courage to teach in such a way as to successfully inspire those we teach to take on the personal and communal responsibilities required of a true craftsman. Responsibility being something of a 4-letter word nowadays.

    2. Work to build communities … IMO, this is spiritually necessary. Regarding mentors, do you already have a post somewhere on the mentor-mentoree relationship, so that folks might understand the nature and importance of it? (Now that I think of it, this might be something I could do if you think it would be interesting.)

    3. Work to create and support models of distribution, marketing and payment
    Oooo, this would be wonderful. Then I could stop suffering and write that symphony! As it is, much of the writing I do, especially in the church, I do for free. This is a strain on my household and doesn’t do much to stabalize the future of my disabled daughter, so I’d be happy to see more equitable treatment of artists in the church — aside from free extra copies of whatever journal has solicited my work. Until that happens, however, I’ll keep donating work, within reason.

    4. Embrace models of creation that don’t rely on a sole individual creating work out of thin air: pastiche, group projects, parody, sampling, etc. Do you have a post about the nature and value of pastiche? Both Clinton Larson and Arthur King thought it valuable in the teaching of writing. And about parody: You hardly ever hear this word anymore, so there’s probably a whole ‘nother post on this. What passes for parody these days is often less skillful and more spiteful. Truly, it’s better undertaken by a master (though sometimes a gifted student can achieve some success in it) — somebody qualified to not only critique the technique and content of another but also who knows the tradition.

    5. Support work that responds to other work in obvious or oblique ways. Good advice. The model you propose for doing this seems based on the “consumer” model (“And even more importantly commit to consuming the work of others…”). I wonder if you could elaborate on what you intend in your use of this model.

  6. Excellent response and questions, Patricia.

    I don’t have any good answers to your questions. I certainly would like to see both you and Larry be rewarded financially for your work — work that does show good craftsmanship, imo. I’m not very optimistic about the prospects for writing. Visual art might be able to do a little better if we can convince a larger Mormon audience to “buy local” (perhaps not the best term to borrow, but it’s what came to mind).

    I don’t have posts on mentors or on pastiche. Posts on each of the five points would be good. I have a lot more thinking to do on all of this.

    But I can say a bit more about #5. In my experience, Mormon artists (especially writers and filmmakers) don’t always show enough awareness of the field. Too much gets created in isolation. In addition, because the field seems to have a paucity of publishing opportunities, works get published that point to interesting further directions to be explored in theme, form, tone, style, etc. But these don’t tend to be followed up on. Perhaps my perceptions are off. But when I think about Mormon literary fiction, my minds hits islands of works and authors.

    One of the fabulous things about speculative fiction (and I don’t know if this is still true, but it certainly was in the 1950s-70s) is that writers were always trying to top each other and were willing to embrace new seams that were being mined. Not all of them were able to make the transitions into the newer styles, but many were.

    In addition, in the development of national literatures as well as other artistic schools and movements, artists tended to be aware of what others were doing and to directly pay homage, respond to and/or challenge others’ work. It was a conversation. Not always a healthy one, but still a conversation.

    I was delighted, for example, to discover that Shawn, Anneke and I had all written recent RM stories (which we published at Popcorn Popping. Now, we each came at them without prior knowledge of what each other was writing, but that’s an example of a clump of works that are interesting when taken together and which could be added to.

    If we actively consume the work of others, then I think we can’t help but produce work that responds in some way (as I say — obvious or oblique) to what’s going on in the Mormon cultural sphere. I know sometimes authors are afraid of being influenced, but this goes back to the idea of craftsmanship. Craftsmen are aware of the developments, techniques and patterns of the field and absorb them and refine them to make them better (or at least to express them in the way that they best are able to).

  7. .

    I hope the advent of online publishing and POD and like technologies will help remedy this in the writing realm. In the past there were too many gatekeepers surrounding a very small field. Today, the field is widening and no one can keep anyone one else out.

    Sort of.

    Of course, it is always more Respectable to publish with a known house than through Lulu (or whatever) and we’re a long way from rejecting that notion.

    But then, I’m not sure we should. In regards to craft, working with a skilled editor results in better crafted work than going it alone, no matter how critical of and willing to rewrite one’s own work one is.

    That last sentence, for instance. Terrible. If only I had an editor for my comments!

  8. So perhaps the solution is to provide more avenues for people to gain editing experience.

    *whistles innocently*


    In terms of Respectability, this gets back to some of what I say above — I don’t know that we’re* ever going to be Respectable. And really, which editors can be trusted? I think what you do is raid American culture to get a certain awareness of the field and then grow your own, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t. This is what many of the national literatures did. The Romanians were educated in the French and German literary traditions, but then created their own (often competing) homegrown schools. They created their own publishers and editors and writers.

    *We in this case refers to that narrow spectrum of writers who focus on Mormon-themed literary fiction (and genre fiction that’s more literary and/or hybridized).

  9. .

    My apologies. In my last comment the houses I was referring to started with Zarahemla and ended with the handful of new upstarts. It’s still “better” to publish with a logo on the spine than without.

    Q: Should it be?

  10. It’s still “better” to publish with a logo on the spine than without.

    Q: Should it be?

    Th., I think you’re trying to differentiate between subsidy publishing and true self-publishing. A true self-publisher (me):

    starts the biz from scratch,

    sets up as a publisher,

    gets wholesale/vendor accounts,

    contracts for services (graphic or layout or editing in any combination),

    buys her own ISBNs,

    gets her own logo to put on the spine,

    purchases the services of a library cataloging company.

    Considering I went to the trouble of actually getting cataloging information to slap on my copyright page, it should take a while for any casual reader or librarian to figure out it’s self-published.

    Lulu has its uses and the “taint” of Lulu is, I think, slowly fading. However, I made the decision that I didn’t want the taint, no matter how opaque, and I was willing to put my money where my opinion was.

    *We in this case refers to that narrow spectrum of writers who focus on Mormon-themed literary fiction (and genre fiction that’s more literary and/or hybridized).

    Which is why I had to do this myself. There is no place for a hybrid genre romance/religious identity piece. Anywhere.

    What it will take is for the writers/authors to take a page out of the filmmakers’ and musicians’ book and create on your own dime. But then that brings us to the crux of the matter:


    As in, going out and maybe never returning. A bet, a gamble, a risk.

    What you need then, besides the money, is enough faith in your own work to take the leap.

  11. And oh, there are other business decisions involved too, which, for me include the fact that traditional publishing is failing. The outdated and wasteful consignment method of wholesaling books, the slowness of publishers to get on the digital bandwagon.

    IMO, I’m not just self-publishing, I’m investing in a better publishing model. Hopefully. And again, a completely risk

  12. I think building communities, especially online, is key. It is exactly how the manga and anime markets got jump-started in the U.S. These genres, though, enjoyed an established credibility in Japan, if not critically then at least commercially. The ostensible Mormon artist, though, has no one watching his back, and very often spears aimed at his front. There is no commercial safe haven. Established institutions will not offer him cover if he runs afoul of implicit standards (let alone the explicit ones). Deseret Book–and any publisher who takes its lead–will take no chances. What Mormon writers are “allowed” to write about non-Mormons they may not write about Mormons and be considered “acceptable.” Stephenie Meyer’s characters act like Mormons but are never identified as such. And this makes all the difference in the world.

  13. Stephenie Meyer’s characters act like Mormons who push the boundaries of “For the Strength of the Youth” but that’s okay because they aren’t Mormon.

    Take the same books and make Bella a Mormon, and I wonder if they’d be as successful with the Mormon audience. They’d certainly be more scandalous.

    So yeah, Eugene, Mormonism adds a difficult wrinkle to building an online market.

  14. What Mormon writers are “allowed” to write about non-Mormons they may not write about Mormons and be considered “acceptable.”

    As perfectly illustrated in today’s linky-link of a review of Eric Samuelsen’s play Inversion, wherein the reviewer states explicitly:

    Morality tales are the stock-in-trade of the most successful LDS writers today: Stephenie Meyer, Orson Scott Card, Anita Stansfield, Lee Nelson, Gerald Lund, Dean Hughes. They don’t delve into the dark recesses of the psyche. They prefer to call out the forces of light to battle that darkness…

    And if you’re a Mormon writer, you better remember to include a lesson or two in your work.

    The line between acceptable and unacceptable is a tiger trap. Eugene’s absolutely right.

  15. The last line of the 13th article of faith states, “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things”

    I think that statement is the standard that many Mormons use to gauge the content of any art form they are willing to accept and why “They don’t delve into the dark recesses of the psyche.

    The 13th Article of Faith is one of the ideals our leadership likes to present and I don’t disagree that that is their job. But,I think it could be a factor of some self censorship by artists.

  16. Give the nature of your wonderful blog, you might like the budding artist/animators from our ward who made their own old testament movies. Hilarious!

    Wm Morris adds: AMV generally frowns on drive-by commenters who only show up to promote their own work, but since this one apparently isn’t looking to sell anything I’m going to let this comment stand. Of course, as always, commenters are quite welcome to promote their own sites by adding a URL to go with their name alongside comments that are on topic and help build the community. And anyone looking to promote their work is welcome to pitch ideas to admin AT motleyvision DOT org.

  17. So, late to the party again. But what a potent discussion.

    I’m still digesting, but this reminds me of David Hockney’s book from 2001 I think, that discusses Vermeer and the like as artists, but essentially as tracers. He suggests that they just didn’t share their techniques with anyone. The title escapes me, but it’s something like “Forgotten Secrets of the Masters,” or something like that.

    Completely changed/shifted my view of Art History. All of it. Anyway, I highly recommend it.

  18. .

    My brother is doing research in turn-of-the-century magazines and recently found this:

    “That is what we need in fiction–more manual labor and less indecent mental dexterity.”

    Just thought you would be interested.

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