Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Artist and Craftsman

Today I was privy to a wonderful discussion. It is amazing that the human soul is always viewed through the keyhole of the human body. We think that the various facets of a person are united in the body that seems to contain them all. And this was the thought that passed my mind while I overheard the discussion on a table behind where I was sitting at the Murugan Idli House. They have partitions between tables to discourage nosy people (ahem!) from intruding in the little private spaces awarded by restaurant tables. Many places don't even grant you that much; people would quite casually join at your table if a particular corner is not covered by human hand, coffee stain or a plate of idli/dosa.
What made the discussion wonderful? The discussion relayed my thoughts as if I was the third person in the conversation. I would have thought of something and one of them spoke it as if I had handed him a chit of paper and whispered "Psst!". It happened several times and often I felt that one of them was presenting my thoughts better than I could ever do.
Let me hand over the stage to them. I don't recollect the earlier bits of the conversation, so what follows is from where I remember. My thoughts inserted in curly brackets.

"... and he said that he would put up a post related to that comment", said deep voice (DV)
"I doubt whether he would. He is an artist so you can't predict what he'll write", said mellow voice (MV).
"I don't think he is an artist. He keeps talking about reworking and stuff and he writes these things called experience writing - a term, he says, he coined - which seem to be based on events that might or might not have happened with characters who might have been there in his life but are just the physical entity which he fills with the persona he chooses, making them live emotions and events which they might never have, although it would always comes across as plausible."
"But he also writes things in one flow. You remember his posts, right? I spoke to him after reading that koan of his and he goes "I don't have a clue why I wrote that." Now isn't that a mark of an artist?"
{Why is everyone so impressed by suddenness?}
"Why do you think that if a work of art stems from an abstruse afflatus, it is truly art? Can there be no work of art which requires deliberate thought and planning?"
I suppose MV was thinking about this or sipping tea before it grew cold.
"I think we need to distinguish between art and craft, don't you think?" asked MV.
"I am not sure. Take a look at this photograph. Do you think it's beautiful?"
"Of course!"
I was wondering what they were looking at. I contemplated getting up and peering over the partition, but I wasn't sure how they were seated. But what had that picture got to do with this discussion?
"Why are you suddenly showing me this picture?"
"Do you think it is a work of art?"
"Surely. What colour! I love the colour of the sky against the windshield and the bent signpost. Very well captured."
"And what about this picture?"
"Neat. Where did you find this? Since when have you developed an interest for photography?" asked MV.
"Oh! I have always been interested in the arts and I got these pictures from the links on his blog."
"Really? From his blog? How come I missed them?"
"Do you know that the first picture has been touched and modified by Photoshop?"
"Really!? Oh! But then what is the point of that? Anyone can do that. And the 2nd one?"
"Well, its a shot that was captured at that instant."
"Now that is photography!"
{So something untouched is photography?}
"Why? Just because it hasn't been touched?" asked DV.
"Yes, what is the point manipulating something. It is basically rigging it, right?"
"In a way, yes, but photography is always that. With film based cameras, the dark room is where processing would happen and that was never considered artistic enough when compared to still life painting or something like that. Every art form has gone through its stages of being considered ersatz."
"But don't you think that photography is about the eye of the photographer and hence reveals his aesthetic sense?"
"True, but a picture touched in order to reveal what the artist wants is also revelatory of the newly-defined artist's aesthetic sense, isn't it? Now, the artist is not a photographer but a digital image... whatever, but he is also an artist whose tools and building blocks are now different. For a photographer it is the real world, perhaps. For a digital artist it is a snapshot of the real world which he can now work on to create an image which he can see in his mind's eye and which didn't exist in the real world or in the snapshot."
{When does one stop? Everything can be made an art?}
"Then that would require being clear about where one draws a line to one's art form. Photography ends there and digital imagery starts here. Else it would be quite difficult to understand and appreciate art forms", said MV.
"Well, how does it matter where we draw lines? I think that is why he said Does it matter where the river is born when it cannot quench your thirst? in response to one of the earlier comments."
"True. Would it matter whether I really saw a man writh in pain after being bit by a snake, or is it sufficient that I can make the reader "see" the man writhing in pain? Let's hope he writes about it as he promised."
"And then there is this infatuation that patrons have with art produced by the mentally affected or drug-induced art. I don't..."
"But there is an other worldly thing about those products. Something that leaves the source unknown and unreachable. Isn't it a wonder how they create such brilliant pieces! Listen to Miles Davis, Ray Charles, read Woolf, Poe, Kerouac, admire Van Gogh, Michelangelo... you name it. There are more whacky people admired than pedestrian artists."
"I agree, that there is this aura about them, about their muse and where they derive their inspiration from. But is that how art should be defined?"
{No! But there is some magical quality to the thing that springs from unknown wells.}
"I agree that art is not defined thus, but mystery when combined with art has its own value. People aren't merely interested in the art pieces. They want to know more about the artist, where he comes from, what stokes his creative fires... and when they find a puzzle in the artist, they are attracted more towards the art pieces he produces."
"But that is not what should affect our judgement, right?"
"Absolutely not but that brings us back to the distinction between an artist and a craftsman."
"I hesitate to realise the difference."
"Come on, it can't be that bad. I think an artist is one who gets a clear vision and acts on it. A craftsman would be someone who uses effort and intelligence to create something beautiful. An artist would be purer in a sense than a craftsman."
{How untrue!}
"See? This is why I hesitate. I think they are both pure. What if the artist is a sculptor? His vision might take a few weeks to take form, right? He would employ effort and intelligence, right? So would you call Michelangelo an artist or a craftsman after he completed the Pieta?"
"Aaah! the Pieta! She is so beautiful. Yes, I agree with you. It does become difficult. But photograph manipulation has to be a craft and not an art."
"I disagree. What if the photographer saw the scene before his eyes and was able to picture how he would want to render it eventually through digital manipulation? Every photographer who can adjust aperture and exposure in an SLR is manipulating the image already, isn't he?"
"It does appear like it is a very thin line. So what is the mark of an artist? How is he different from a craftsman? Is there a difference at all?"
"I don't know. It is easy to say no but I am sure he might raise some interesting points in his post."
"If he writes", said MV.
"Yes, if he writes. You can't be sure about his writing though. Sometimes it seems like craft and sometimes like something readymade which he just put up on his blog."
"Yes. Actually he is a decent case in point for the thin line vanishing."
"Or like Forrester says in "Finding Forrester": You write your first draft ... with your heart. You rewrite with your head."
"I think he said that too over the phone, a while ago. He might have seen the movie."
{That quote tickles something in me. Maybe that is the clue that he gave to MV.}
"Is it possible that that is what he means to be the distinguishing factor between an artist and a craftsman?"
"What do you mean?" asked DV.
"Think about it. Think about what he said about the river being born and thirst quenching. I think he means something in that."
"Hmmm. I think that is part of the answer. His response to the other part is hidden in his many koans. The point is that every reading gives me a different meaning."
"For all you know, he might be clear and blunt in addressing this issue. Let's just wait for his post. "
I was happy that my breakfast was peppered with this conversation which made me smile... though I wonder who they were talking about.


  1. Very interesting conversation. And equally interesting points made.
    In my opinion, a photographer is no different an artist than a 'digital image manipulator'. Both work on the same premises although the objects and the changes that they do differ.
    Now, that'll probably lead us to this question. Do goldsmiths become artists then?

  2. Parvati3:58 PM

    A craftsman is a technical expert of a craft, while a good artist must needs be a visionary who sees in his mind's eye a beauty that is not yet there in the materials he uses, be they of nature or a film or a canvas or the human body in which a divine dance is yet to vibrate, a visionary and a great craftsman too, so that his genius vision can be expressed flawlessly in matter. Many professions have the jobs of an artist and a craftsman (as in a jewellery designer : an artist visavis a goldsmith, the craftsman) separated and performed by 2 different human beings, as there are dress designers who "see" and design the great dress, but the craftsman tailor gives form to their vision, whereas a photographer is simulatneously first an excellent craftsman when he clicks the extraordinary picture, and when he digitally manipulates it to greater perfection he is an artist.

  3. Dear TI,
    Glad you found it so. Very valid observation and question. I don't really know. :-) I tend to think that an artist's ways leave no footsteps to be retraced and a craftsman's ways are well trudged... Sometimes an artist and a craftsman are well merged in the soul; at times, not. Welcome to this blog. :-)

    Dear P,
    What you say is true. Technical expertise is undoubtedly the marking difference between a craftsman and one who isn't. But what do you have to say about the ways of an artist? Why are they so mercurial? Am I understood?

  4. Parvati11:24 PM

    Ways of an artist, eh? Well, they are mercurial because in their creative state they are in touch with a realm that is free, infinite without any boundaries - they feel omnipotent and are indeed so as far as their source and execution of their art is concerned. Now, poor children that they are, they carry this baggage of great freedom forward to their mundane simple actual material lives. Material/physical life and freedom are completely mutually exclusive entities. the former has some semblance of bearability or a faint shade of beauty if at all, only when lived in an excruciatingly disciplined manner full of limits, should and shouldnts. Otherwise it becomes a mess; whereas in his creative plane, he has to be free, has to live the eternal elements of artistic inspiration. Here he will be destroyed as an artist, if he tries to live in confines, limits and boundaries rules and regulations. Art puts the artist in touch with infinity, while life brings him back to the real limits of existence mostly with a thud; it is but natural and completely understandable that an artist wants to cling to the freedom and variety that he has known through his art, do as he pleases, be this or that or the other, whenever wherever howsoever, and this is seen as mercurial and unreliable, because life needs a different handling than art. No common single way of handling our different facets of human nature. A pity. But true.
    phew! sorry. too long a comment, isnt it?