“It’s pretty, but is it art?”

I’m with the Greeks on this one. I do think there is a distinction between craft (techne) and art (poesis). For me, the distinction is whether something is functional or inspirational. For example, there is a craft to writing an instruction manual that is useful and functional – something that you need – whereas an exquisitely crafted poem may be inspired and inspiring, but you don’t need it in any concrete or functional way. A beautiful piece of pottery is functional. What made it art was when the Greeks painted decorative friezes on the pottery. The difficulty in the debate comes when a craft is pushed beyond being merely utilitarian, because then the degree to which it is artistic becomes a very subjective judgment. The hard work of chiseling out a piece of marble takes a certain craft, but when the craftsman is Michelangelo and his chiseling eventually yields a statue like David, there is no shadow of a doubt in my mind that that is art. On the other hand, even if the Curator of Modern Art at the BMA waxes lyrical and gets excited about an exhibit of decomposing fruit, I don’t accept that as art. It seems to me that books, like pottery, are a borderline case. Books are functional, certainly, and if they are not, they are not truly books, in my opinion (as in those intricately crafted sculpted creations made out of books). Books are for reading; that is their primary function. If, over and above that, they are beautifully, imaginatively and thoughtfully conceived to convey the inner meaning of the writing, and if they are unique in doing so, then I think they can be considered art in some cases. As I say, it is so subjective!

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1 comment
  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Much of what you said is exactly what book artists are struggling with. And, in this case, when I saw book artists, I mean people who are creating books to convey a message in an artful way (as opposed to artists who use existing books as a medium for sculpting, etc.). So, in my case, if I create a very traditional book, how can I help the general public see the art AND the craftsmanship that went into it’s creation? How do I get them past the automatic recognition of book as functional object to help them see the art there? People aren’t use to thinking of books as art, but, as you’ve pointed out, they certainly can be artful.

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