Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Art, Craft, and Alchemy
"[T]he making of a work of art has little in common with what we ordinarily mean by 'making.' It is a strange and risky business in which the maker never quite knows what he is making until he has actually made it; or, to put it another way, it is a game of find-and-seek in which the seeker is not sure what he is looking for until he has found it. . .
"To the non-artist, it seems hard to believe that this uncertainty, this need-to-take-a-chance, should be the essence of the artist's work. For we all tend to think of 'making' in terms of the craftsman or manufacturer who knows exactly what he wants to produce from the very outset, picks the tools best fitted to his task and is sure of what he is doing at every step. Such 'making' is a two-phase affair: first the craftsman makes a plan, then he acts on it. And because he -- or his customer -- has made all the important decisions in advance, he has to worry only about means, rather than ends, while he carries out his plan. There is thus little risk, but also little adventure, in his handiwork, which as a consequence tends to become routine. It may even be replaced by the mechanical labor of a machine.
"No machine, on the other hand, can replace the artist, for with him conception and execution go hand in hand and are so completely interdependent that he cannot separate the one from the other. Whereas the craftsman only attempts what he knows to be possible, the artist is always driven to attempt the impossible -- or at least the improbable or unimaginable. . .
"The urge to penetrate unknown realms, to achieve something original, may be felt by every one of us now and then; to that extent, we can all fancy ourselves potential artists -- mute inglorious Miltons. What sets the real artist apart is not so much the desire to seek, but that mysterious ability to find which we call talent. . .
"All we can really say about talent is that it must not be confused with aptitude. Aptitude is what the craftsman needs; it means a better-than-average knack for doing something that any ordinary person can do. An aptitude is fairly constant and specific; it can be measured with some success by means of tests which permit us to predict future performance. Creative talent, on the other hand, seems utterly unpredictable; we can spot it only on the basis of past performance. . .
"Originality, then, is what distinguishes art from craft. We may say, therefore, that it is the yardstick of artistic greatness or importance. Unfortunately, it is also very hard to define; the usual synonyms -- uniqueness, novelty, freshness -- do not help us very much, and the dictionaries tell us only that an original work must not be a copy, reproduction, imitation, or translation. What they fail to point out is that originality is always relative: there is no such thing as a completely original work of art. . . ." H.W. Janson, History of Art, 1964.
The above passage reminds me to strive to create something beyond what we know. The path is infinite, and we as artists must stay on course for as long as our minds remain cognizant. If we should find ourselves following a pre-discovered formula, then we have demoted our yardsticks to measuring simple distances rather than originality. But if we find ourselves in the unknown, we should know that we may be on to something.
A craftsman laughs at the idea of turning lead into gold, as it is the practice of a foolhardy alchemist, but I think an artist should strive to be more like the latter than the former.
Cosmic Pull I, 44" x 32", oil on acrylic sheet, 2013.
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