Have you ever winced when someone admired your work and declared you an artist? I take it as a sincere compliment, but I think of my work as craft. If done well it extends our craft tradition, a reward in itself. Yet that “Art” compliment seen in a historical context offers insight that may just help you do your best work. Pre-industrial design literature is filled with references to art.
In the broadest sense the world was split into two large buckets – things that occurred by the forces of nature and things art-ificial, or things made by the hand of man. Thus the word art was tacked onto any activity where we transformed a thing into something else. Art was used to describe the work of the trades such as the art of joinery or brewing.
Art was defined as “A system of knowledge which makes the things a man undertakes succeed.” Art was further divided into many branches, but for our purposes the fork that separated art and craft was the distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts. Liberal being defined as arts involving the mind, what we today call fine art, and included: painting, music, poetry, sculpture, and architecture. Oddly enough Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia circa 1728 described the liberal arts as the noble branch worthy of being cultivated without any regard to lucre. As opposed to mechanical arts (craft) which furnishes us with the necessities of life and largely involved hand and body such as: weaving, clockmaking, joinery, turning, and cabinetmaking.
Yet even though separate branches, both liberal and mechanical shared some common threads. They both recognized that the best work crossed a line that often defied words to explain. Whether that came after centuries of refinement handed down through generations and resulted in the pleasing lines of a boat hull, or the stunning image of a painting that captures the essence of life. There was always the sense that both craft and art has the potential to cross that mysterious line.
Both arts also understood that there was a “craft” element to be mastered. The painter studied brush techniques, color, values, and perspective, while the cabinetmaker learned joinery, sharpening, and the properties of wood. Yet cabinetmaker and painter also learned the “craft” element of design. In the cabinetmakers case, the craft of design involved simple geometry; mastered not just for layouts, but also to nurture the inner eye, and something even more odd to our modern way of thinking. They held tightly to a rite of passage that shows up over and over again, learning the secrets of the classic orders. These ancient architectural standards helped the mind to understand space and proportions, improve judgment and confidence, and provide the ability to cross that line that defies explanation.
That design skill element is what I’m interested in mastering. I know it doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s the gateway to crossing over that line.
George R. Walker