A month ago I wrote a short post in which I tried to backpedal a bit from all the talk about pulp and action I’ve been doing lately. You should read that post first, if you haven’t already.
I’ve tended to define these two aspects of the writer’s life as the thing you can learn (craft) and the thing you can’t (art). But that’s not good enough. Not for me, anyway—not anymore. I’d like to take at least a slightly deeper dive into the difference between art and craft.
A simple distinction is made by DifferenceBetween.net in the short article “Difference Between Art and Craft”:
Art is a form of work that is the expression of emotions. Craft is a form of work, which results in a tangible output, for example, moulding and carving.
Art is often described as unstructured and open ended. It has no limitations of expression, just like in painting. Craft on the other hand is structured, which means that it has a certain form that is visible.
For me that means well-made “craft” becomes “art” when it’s appreciated as such, and poorly executed “art” can be relegated to “craft” if it fails to emotionally resonate. Art is in the eye of the beholder and a great work of art can show little in terms of technical expertise, like the great abstract expressionist works of Jackson Pollack often criticized as paintings “anyone” could make, or a work of exemplary craft like a simple glass and steel office building that no one finds particularly inspiring but that will stand for millennia, and functions perfectly as designed.
For the record, I do see Pollack’s work as art and don’t think for a second that I could have done it. These paintings transcend the method. It’s about the idea, the feeling, the comment on the time and place in which they were painted, on the author’s inner life . . . things that all great art shares: the perfectly intangible.
That being said, it’s fair to see craft as tradition and art as innovation.
The split between art/artists and craft/artisans dates back to Renaissance humanism when, according to Laura Morelli in her TED-Ed video “Is There a Difference Between Art and Craft?”: “within a single generation, people’s attitudes about objects and their makers would shift dramatically” and the culture began “placing greater value on individual creativity than collective production.”
Morelli prefers the term “visual arts” in terms of painting, sculpture, etc.—can we extend this to “written arts”? So that we can appreciate pulp fiction or “boilerplate” thrillers as art the same way we appreciate certain decorative items as folk art?
“ ‘The irony is that the art hasn’t gotten better, we have,’ said Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. ‘At last we can recognize its quality.’ ” Margo Jefferson wrote in her New York Times piece “Beyond Cultural Labeling, Beyond Art Versus Craft.”
“People still debate the relative value of art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture),” Jefferson continued, “It’s the utilitarian versus the high art tradition. But why must high mean better? Why can’t it just describe a certain history of techniques and practices?”
Good question. But fiction was never created to be “used” in the same way a chair or serving dish is used, so now this distinction fails us. If pulp was mean to “entertain” then isn’t that, by it’s very nature, eliciting emotions, and so, therefore, good or bad, art?
I think so.
“Happily,” Jefferson wrote, “institutions and individuals are deciding to throw out the old debates about the relative values of art designated fine, folk, high or utilitarian. The point is to understand each tradition. The point is to open one’s eyes to any artist who, as Joseph Conrad said, can make us hear, feel and above all see.”
Same for writers of once-marginalized genres. A novel featuring dueling wizards, if it elicits an emotional reaction in its reader, is as much a work of literary art as those novels “designated fine” by academia.