The art within the craft

What makes something art?

Anyone who has ever been around artists, or is an artist has had this discussion at least once. What is the difference been an artist and a craftsman? This conversation has a tendency to become very pedantic, and often times makes the one arguing for art come across as a pompous, self-important dill hole.

So how do we define the difference between an artist and a craftsman?  What is it that separates art and craft?

As a photographer, web designer, and code monkey, I find this subject very interesting. Art is a badge that has been affixed to a great many things, and it is the single most subjective idea that can be loosed upon the world. This subjectivity is one of the things that fascinates me about the idea of art and craft being different – and yes, to get to the meat of it; there is a difference. According to Webster’s it’s as simple as this:

Craftsman: a worker who practices a trade or handicraft.

Artist: one who professes and practices an imaginative art.

So is it really this simple? What defines an imaginative art? Painting, drawing, sculpture; these are very easy to look upon and see an imaginative art.

What about photography? Surely there are examples of abstract photography that can lead to this simplified definition, but what of landscape photographers such as Bradford Washburn, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams (or portrait photographers like Chuck Close, Annie Leibovitz, or Yousuf Karsh)? They shot what they saw and printed it. Granted, that is a huge over-simplification of their process (and in no way meant to be demeaning towards their art), but where is the imagination in shooting landscape? Their images reflected their personality and unique vision, and that’s what makes them standout. Their artistic vision fused with a mastery of their craft, producing exceptional images that stand as iconic examples of artistic photography. But is their work art, as Defined by Webster’s? I believe it is. All of the before mention photographers were pioneers in photography, and made huge strides in bringing the art of photography to the status it currently enjoys. Adams created stunningly beautiful and emotionally stirring images through an intimate knowledge of his chosen landscape, in particular Yosemite. His attention to detail in all aspects of image creation culminated in the perfection of a process (the Zone System) transcending craft in ways that most photographers could barely imagine.

Part of the challenge in separating art and craft also stems from that many artists are skilled craftsman; having mastered their craft and surpassed simply being able to wield their tools. Still, this is an ephemeral idea, not really lending itself to a clean delineation. That being said, does everyone who practices an art form such as painting, drawing, sculpture or print-making instantly become an artist? What it boils down to is what is being created within the given craft to push the boundaries of what has been created and how. Does the work transcend the tools used to create it or is it a reflection of the tools and subject matter?

On a personal level, I have a degree in Photography, have used dozens of different cameras and film sizes to create images. I have shot portraits and landscapes for personal and monetary reward, but do I consider myself an Artist? Probably not.

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