How Fine is Your Art?

The word ’art’ carries with it different denotations that vary according to time periods and culture. The traditional explanation divides arts and handicrafts, often placing the latter at a lower level even though every kind of artistic activity is about creation that requires certain skills and work by hands. In this sense, fine arts and handicrafts can not be separated. However, modern art history thinks in a wider sense, not restricting the visual material that we can describe as art work.[1] This attitude is especially important to be noted because arts did not always mean what we mean under this now in the 21st century. A Tibetan or Mongolian statue was defined as art work less in the 16th century, it was rather explained according to its practical function. This is still true for a Tara statue installed in the shrine of a rural monastery, but as soon as it is removed from its original setting (say, into the collection of a foreign museum), its meaning and function suddenly changes.

Photo from a metalworker's workshop, showing a person melting precious metals.

The idea that creativity can be separated from the knowledge of the practical procedure of object making appeared in the late 20th century. Besides, the value of certain forms of arts increased, while other forms became devaluated. Take for example potters, who do not receive the same recognition as sculptors; even metalworking is considered a minor art despite its refinement. In turn, the ordinary customer is puzzled, finding it difficult to understand why some handcrafted product are so expensive. This separation is noticeable in the clientele too. Those customers who appreciate Western high arts are usually not interested in handcrafted products and vice versa. According to Dormer, three things have played important roles in the evolution of the current situation of handicrafts: separation of making from meaning; classifying arts according to certain categories that distinguish high and low arts; and the ordinary customer.[2] Thus, quoting Walter Crane, there are ’the fine arts, and the arts not fine’.[3] Opinions about the time of the formation of this view differ. Some trace it back until the 16th century, others think it originates in the early 18th century.[4] In any case, it is certain that the marked attention that we ascribe to some art branches in Europe, and also the modern abstract art appeared by far later both in Mongolia and Tibet. The difference between the mentioned cultures in this regard is that while in Europe this marked attention mostly goes to fine arts, in Tibet and Mongolia handicrafts are traditionally treasured. Either because the objects are connected to religion, or because they are part of traditional way of life and customs. Legends and myths are attached to objects while they also function as tools for everyday ceremonies. In the 21st century we can already see the same, modern art forms in Mongolia and Tibet too that we find in any other parts of the world but the representation of ancestry still plays a significant role and is therefore evident in almost all artwork. It is not sure though that we have to look at arts and handicrafts with the same standard, since their comparison is made difficult by their filled function. It can be wise to view handicrafts and fine arts as separate units to avoid supposed differences in their worth that arise from a one-to-one comparison. As Metcalf puts it: ’The craftworld accepts the meanings of felt experience and the body, whereas the artworld remains dedicated to meanings embedded in texts and discourses.’ That is, while art places its emphasis on verbal and logical cognitive abilities, crafts rely on bodily intelligence and experience.[5] Because Western societies and increasingly the bigger part of the world put intellectual abilities first, bodily intelligence often remains unrewarded and the existence of this concept is not even in the common knowledge the same way as mental intelligence is. A conscious realization of bodily intelligence and its significanc, altogether the awakening to its existence could possibly contribute to lifting handicrafts to the level equivalent to high arts and with this to a bigger appreciation of crafts people. Conscious and unconsious learning equally produce lasting workmanship but their outward forms differ by nature. To analyse and understand them we need differing abilities, we need to know various systems of notations, symbols and language. What really separates craftsmen from other members of society is the knowledge they carry in their bodies, knowledge that can be understood in its entirety only by those who pursue given profession. However, neither they interpret consciously what they have learnt and experienced. In most cases, the apprentice imitates the master until the process becomes automatic and in the eyes of outsiders the individual enters into the possession of a mysterious science. As Dormer puts it, handicrafts and theory are like oil and water (i.e. incompatible). A handicraft means a system of knowledge that involves a certain scale of values. This knowledge and values are expressed and tested not through language but practice. Therefore it is difficult to talk as well as to write about handicrafts, that is to express them by thoughts, cognitive methods. Masters rarely talk about what they do and why they do it, their knowledge is a kind of unspoken knowledge that is easier to demonstrate than write down.[6] Hence, if we force craftsmen to create a sort of philosophy around their work to become more acknowledged or accepted, enabling us to look at them as artists, then we not only deprive them of their status but their work will inevitably change too.

[1] Eric Fernie (Selection and commentary by), Art history and its methods: a critical anthology, London: Phaidon, 1995, p. 326.

[2] Peter Dormer (ed), The Culture of Craft, Status and Future, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1997, pp. 18-19.

[3] Walter Crane, The Claims of Decorative Art, London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1892, p. 109., quoted in Paul Greenhalgh, The History of Craft, in Peter Dormer (ed), The Culture of Craft, p. 26.

[4] Paul Greenhalgh, The history of Craft, in Peter Dormer (ed), The Culture of Craft, Status and Future, pp. 26-27.

[5] Bruce Metcalf, Craft and art, culture and biology, pp. 72, 80, in Peter Dormer (ed), The Culture of Craft, Status and Future.

[6] Peter Dormer, The Language and Practical Philosophy of Craft, pp. 219, 229, in Peter Dormer (ed), The Culture of Craft, Status and Future.

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