Art and craft

At one time I made my living as a visual artist. My first art was printmaking; I designed and produced small editions of hand-cut, hand-pulled engravings and linoleum cuts. My second was pottery, in which I handbuilt whistles, tableware and buttons.

There is a battle in the world of visual arts concerning the words “art” and “craft”. It’s a vicious battle, and at its worst I’ve seen friendships broken over it. Some consider “art” to be only painting or sculpture and – oddly – the mass-produced numbered posters referred to in the trade as “limited-edition prints”. (For some reason the status of being in a frame on the wall, with the signature of the artist who produced the original painting and a number like “3578/12,321” pencilled in one corner qualifies a poster as art. Go figger.) Everything else is labelled “craft”, purely, I guess, on the matter of medium, and considered not as prestigious, creative, worthy or otherwise “good” as art.

This makes absolutely no sense to me. I see art as the inspiration, the idea that strikes out of the blue, the “what if I did…?”, the thing that gets you up at three in the morning to make notes or sketches. I see craft as the mastery of the tools and materials.

In order to produce art, you need both.

In writing, this conflict doesn’t exist in the same way.There are writers whose craft and style are so beautiful and readable that I would read their grocery lists. There are others who have hold of a good story idea, but whose writing doesn’t allow me to fall into the story. The problem might be punctuation, diction (word choice), repetitive sentence structure, bad grammar, just plain wrong words (“flaunt” for “flout”, say), inability to plot in a straight line, any number of things.

When I read a sentence, for example, that says, “Coming up to the top of the stairs, the elevator door opened in front of him.” I am immediately out of the story and sitting in my chair thinking, “The elevator wasn’t coming up to the top of the stairs!” I realize that there are many readers who will say “Yeah, but you know what he meant,” and go on reading. Yes, I know what the author meant. I also know how it should have been said, and it bothers me that he didn’t, and didn’t bother to learn.

When I critique a piece of writing, what I’m hoping to do is help the author develop a style which is uniquely her own, or his own, and yet so readable that the reader is never popped out of the story by flaws in craft. I assume that any writer – any person – can learn “lie” from “lay”, where to use the subjunctive, and what “deficit” really means. A writer who doesn’t seem to want to make his or her writing grammatical, well-punctuated and easy to read really puzzles me. I don’t mean that every book, every story, should be an undemanding read, but it should at least be a well-constructed demanding read.

I believe, and I’m probably in the minority, that when you take up an art you should learn to do it the best you can. You need to study your craft, whether it’s carpentry, abstract expressionist painting, baking or blacksmithing or writing. You owe that to your audience, yourself, your art and your craft.

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