Sunday, 15 August 2010

Artful dodgings

It wasn’t many years ago, during what I call the hey-day of blogging, web journals were by and large, personal. At least that was my perception. I can remember a time when, at the inception of the ‘next blog button’ in Blogger, its use would more than likely give you a personal site, a site making general observations about life, love, the family, and all related mundanities. Less frequent were the Art, craft, and special interest blogs which seem to proliferate these days. Not that this is a bad thing (and I confess to being fascinated by those persons I consider “proper” artists) but it makes me wonder, what is this thing we call ‘Art’. Even I’m not immune to aspire to create in this way, indeed, my Ipad sports two, as yet, unused, Art applications - Brushes, and Sketchbook Pro. And I was interested enough to pay for them, though the fascination isn’t random. I do have what may be called, a history in this domain.

A while ago now, when just a child, in my class I was considered to be one of the more “talented” draughtsman and painters, if not the best. This accolade lasted throughout my school years until such time I left at age sixteen. It culminated in the award of a free scholarship for the local college of Art, Birmingham. Not that I ever attended. Dad saw to that. His prejudice ensured I would never end up like those “long-haired layabouts (aka Art students) hanging out at the fountain square!”.

Ironic words in retrospect, considering this was the mid-sixties, just prior to the apogee of the “hippy years”; and, as it transpired, my sympathies lay with these, the great “unwashed” (as referred to by the less tolerant). My allegiance to this “scruffy bunch” was badged by means of thick, wavy hair, cascading over my shoulders (oh how I miss those days when, even washed in carbolic soap, it shone as if conditioned by the finest most expensive lotions and oils) Not that I spent too much time displaying my luxuriant locks around Birmingham’s premier water-feature. Not at all. My preference was for the upstairs room at Bogarts, a public house at the top end of New Street - the choice of hippies, quasi and authentic alike. But still, arguably it amounted to a, “Hey there daddy, look, see my finger?”

I can’t though, in all fairness, blame father. Like many of his generation he did his best, ensuring I was fed, clothed and well shod. He wouldn’t have known of progressive concepts such as encouragement or support, and as for personal expression, he’d have viewed the idea with disdain, thinking, and I can imagine him saying, “what a load of crap!”. Life was clear-cut. It was his and mothers job to ensure the statutory requirement of school attendance was met; it was not their brief to take an interest, or get involved in, the work itself. Neither did they ensure I did my homework, so you can guess as to my extra-curricular effort! No, for them it was simple and uncomplicated: school was designed to pass time till I was able to leave and go out into the big world, to earn shoe leather. That last year of school, at age 16, was the last time I remember putting HB grade pencil to paper, or brush to paint pot.

In retrospect, I’m not convinced, had father been of another mind, it would have turned out differently. I don’t ever remember feeling particularly skilled at drawing and painting. Techniques were never broached, not during my time at school anyway. It was about natural(and I use the word cautiously) “talent’. When it came to drawing, all I did was emulate as best I could what I saw, though I was aware, comparatively speaking, my efforts were often more realistic than those of my classmates; but I didn’t feel it was due to the possession of any skill, more a lack of something on their part. I was praised, but it never felt deserved. How could it? To do what came naturally didn’t require obstacles to be overcome, or the application of effort. I just did what I did. Though it’s possible, if this innate ability had been mentored and nurtured, I’d be capable of producing the kind of work I now admire. It’s a big If.

In my maturity, I often reflect on those times. Is my current interest in Art solely down to the praise heaped upon me all those years ago? Am I looking to engage in something I can be good at, and which I feel will gain me approval? Or maybe I feel the approval comes from the cool appellation of, Don Swift, Artist! Or is it, as many would claim, innate? Is the manipulation of paint, clay, and other materials, a vehicle for self-expression? Or perhaps an end in itself, the very act of painting, or sculpting, a meditation in manipuilation? I don’t know. Not yet.

The whole notion of Art and Artist is puzzling, for me at least. What is it? In its most popular usage, to describe a sphere of activity, it becomes more elusive. What constitutes Art or being an Artist? Is it, for example, simply the engaging in painting that makes you an Artist? But what if you copy faithfully a work considered to be Art, does that make you an Artist too? Or are you, no matter how competent, simply a craftsman? Of course, as I write all of this, the question comes plainly into view: does it matter? I have to say, yes, inasmuch as many talk with authority (rightly or wrongly) on this very subject.

My provisional idea, and I’d appreciate any constructive criticism, is: if the work involved employs skilled and repetitive techniques only, even if the finished result is of the highest quality, then it's considered a craft. But, if the work has implicit within it, something novel, something challenging, something which stirs the imagination, then it can be considered Art. Maybe.

I'm toying with the idea that a necessary, but not sufficient condition for being an Artist is to have attitude: to challenge, to confront, to be contrary; the opposite of the formulaic, which craft always is. Again, maybe.

You’ll have to excuse me now, I’m off to get to grips with my digital painting applications. Don’t expect any displays too soon though.


Michelle said...

Wow... very beautifully written, real deep and stuff. I'd offer my thoughts on what you said but.. don't know what to say..

*tries to think of something clever to add to discussion and doesn't*

oh well..

Sari said...

This is a brilliant post and a very thought-provoking too. For a long time I've tried to figure out the difference between art and craft and always seem to get back to square one. I think the line between art and craft is a very fine one, wonky too, and the definitions overlap a great deal.

Photography, for example, is clearly a craft. Printing photographs requires a skill and the process can be repeated to reproduce the end product. But, the final print may end up being fine art. Think of Ansel Adams. No one would say that he's a craftsman, right?

What about an 'artwork' of bodily fluids in a washing machine in an art gallery? Well someone thinks that's art, I don't. That's just taking the piss. There's lot of that around nowadays. Unfortunately.

Artist goes beyond his humble materials to create something unique and to express his imagination. Crafter can go beyond his humble materials if he's a very experienced and challenging crafter and then his craft can become art. A crafter produces a piece that is usually practical, whereas a piece of art usually appeal at the level of one's imagination only. where does that leave me? Slap bang in the middle, that's where :) Story of my life: neither here nor there :) Anyway, I could go on about this all day but I probably wouldn't get anywhere. And does it really matter at the end of the day? Hardly.

Oh, just an afterthought: what about an artisan? How is that different from a craftsman or is it just a synonym? This is doing me head in, this is :)

Anyway, excellent post Batman. Keep them coming :) And share your artwork too when you get that far, pretty please.

Ronald said...

Michelle, thanks for the compliment. You didn't have to add anything else, I'll settle for "beautifully written" every time.

Sari, thank you too, I shall add "brilliant" to the collection (I'm jesting, I'm really very modest and unassuming) But one thing, do you have to go into it in so much depth? It's got to be the longest comment I've ever seen. You trying to upstage me or something? Just kidding :-)

Sari said...

Sorry. Arts and crafts is the only thing I'm truly passionate about. It brings food to my table and pays my bills (just), so I apologize for getting a bit carried away. I will make sure it won't happen again [walks away to attach the silent Finnish head back on] :)

Anonymous said...

I heard a comic the other night say, "The only advise my father gave me was to keep my pecker in my pants."

Our parents sound similar. Too busy with life to worry about things like living. It's sad that your dad let his own prejudges affect your path and that he had the parental power to do so.

As written (and beautifully) it seems as if you've concluded you had the talent but not the passion as a young man of 16. But then, at age 16, passion is a much different animal.

I create art for approval and for laughs. Beyond that, I have no clue why I spend hours upon hours upon hours doing so.

I would abandon it all in a heartbeat Don if I could write like you. I think writing is your passion and your gift. You are an artist with words.