Art and Craft

Posted: June 12, 2007 in Artistry, Culture

I’ve been reading The Middle Mind by Curtis White, which is pretty interesting and somewhat exasperating at the same time. His thesis is provocative, and his breadth is fairly impressive, but his writing is sometimes clumsy, crass, and obfuscatory. (This fact surprises me, considering how beautifully written are the two Orion Magazine articles I’ve linked to before.) This passage (from p. 52) in particular caused me some consternation:

Art is most itself, is “true” art, when it makes itself not through the conventions of the universal (genre: the rules for the proper construction of sonata or sonnet, or … the rote fulfilment of generic expectation) but, as Adorno thought, “by virture of its own elaborations, through its own immanent process.” Laurence Sterne understood this in the eighteenth century as the only true law of the novel: the novel is the “art of digression.” To be sure, these elaborations can deploy themselves only in a context made available by historical conventions; nonetheless, when an artwork is sucessful, it is in spite of the presence of convention and not because of it. This is why, ultimately, craft has little to do with whether or not a work is a successful piece of art.

I was with him all the way up to the last sentence, but then I screeched to a halt, probably because I’ve been frustrated over time with modern artists (composers, singers, writers, painters, etc.) who lack fundamental skills in their genres that would satisfy the idea of craft. White inadvertently hit one of my nerves.

This passage is careful to point out that artworks only work (can deploy themselves) when conventions provide meaningful context. That’s why so many artists trying to break new ground or create a new language, which is often more about ego or professional advancement, fail to capture an audience. Skill and craft have to show. But then, it’s also necessary to avoid being formulaic (rote fulfilment). This is why Hollywood films fail to rise to the level of art but are mere entertainment. They hew far too close to predictable, modular storytelling even while demonstrating considerable, essentially soulless technique.

Still, I can’t agree that craft ultimately has little to do with artistic success. It’s an absolutely necessary ingredient. But I will agree that the artist must have developed a sensibility that goes beyond mere craft, a sensibility that invests a work with its own organic, internal logic and expressive ethic that must be obeyed without being arbitrary. That’s what is meant by the old saw that one must learn the rules in order to know how to break them. Skipping the rules, failing to develop one’s craft and artistic sensibility, and ignoring conventions are all pathways to incoherence and anarchy.

  1. greywhitie says:

    by success, we often mean acceptance by others. if we define success in those terms, then our work is accepted by others as being worthy of their time, money, attention. van gogh was not successful financially. does that mean his work was, in retrospect, not worthy of our time, money, attention? a big part of being successful as an artist is being able to promote one’s work. the artist has to be business savvy as well as artistically savvy. it’s also important to be well-connected with other artists and folks who pull the strings. ultimately, it’s the people who make the decisions, who can make or break you. why not make a few friends along the way?

  2. Brutus says:

    Capturing an audience is merely one measure of success. Financial success — another conventional measure — means more to some than others. Ultimately, though, it’s artistic success that matters, which is usually rewarded financially. One irony is that art schools and music schools now often include entrepreneurial skills in their curricula. It reflects the reality that without some baseline standard of living, creativity can’t happen.

  3. greywhitie says:

    Brutus comments:

    “It reflects the reality that without some baseline standard of living, creativity can’t happen.”

    greywhitie responds:

    yes, it is rather difficult to create art when one’s stomach is empty or one has no roof to sleep under and needs to sleep on a bench at a public park or camp outside of the library.

  4. The old adage, “Know the rules before you break them,” applies only to art. Knowing the rules for driving a car, for example, doesn’t entitle anyone to break them. But sometimes an artist finds real meaning, or the illusion of it, by jumping off classical structures.
    Most big leaps, however, just don’t work. A real artist knows the unbreakable rules. The first being: you must risk failure every day.
    The other unbreakable rule is the need to step back and look at one’s work as objectively as possible. That’s a fine line, and deeply hidden. Most artists either love what they’ve done or despise it (and themselves) for constantly failing. Only the greatest artists can achieve a perspective that comes at all close to reality.

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