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Artists, Craftsmen…and the Craft of Art

by Erin Yanacek

Down the street from my apartment there is a store called the Artist and Craftsman Supply Store. The name of the store got me thinking. The words, though referring to people working with physical and visual artforms, stick in my musician’s mind. I wonder where does craft begin and art end, and how much of art is in fact craft. How do the two differ and what should I, an aspiring young classical trumpet player, understand about this difference?

photo-2The store was a good place to start in the quest to answer my questions. Scanning the numerous shelves, I sought trends and clues that might help me to arrive at an understanding. Were there sections of the store devoted to Artists? To Craftsmen? It did not seem to be organized in that way. They carried colorful pipe cleaners, shelves full of paint, huge sheets of paper in every color imaginable, picture frames in hundreds of sizes, and much more. But the intended use for each supply was not clearly defined.

A young mother wandered by with her toddler in tow. The toddler, seemingly overwhelmed by the cluttered store, clutched a book of blank paper and a box of crayons. She was clearly off to participate in “arts and crafts.” Yet what was clear to this young one still had me, her older neighbor, more than a bit puzzled.

The store’s virtual presence offered no more answers than did their physical presence, though once again it presented an intriguing journey into the intentions and hopes of artists, craftsmen, and the store’s owners. The quirky, unique layout of the website mimics the idiosyncratic psychological space of the store, creating a setting that seems to allow for limitless possibilities of what can be created—be it art, craft, or anything else. Perhaps all of these supposed “art forms” are craft, with varied intent, outcome, and level of refinement.

A simple comment that a trumpet professor made years ago comes to mind. In a moment when I was playing with much focus on technicality, and apparently not enough on musicality, he stopped me and said, “You must be an artist, Erin, not just a craftsman.” He was referring to my over-concentration on the notes, and reminding me of the necessity for communicating a deeper meaning through the notes rather than regarding technical proficiency as the end goal.

My mind returns to the work of the toddler that I observed at the store. What she produces may appear to some to only be a brown blob on the page. But to her it is likely a beautiful pony, and to her mother is it likely a tear-jerking sign of progress and of life. The mother will likely hang it on her refrigerator, proudly displaying that this little person that she herself created is now being creatively prolific herself. It may not appear to the stray visitor that the child’s work is art. Nonetheless, some participants in the process of creation did have a creative and artistic experience, and thus the work should not be negated, though she may still need to work on the “craft” of her art in the years to come.

So to what point does the importance of intent to communicate musical ideas trump technical proficiency?  I think of the archetypical community orchestra. Ensemble members might not possess the instrumental skill of top-tier orchestras, and together they may not be able to produce the beautiful, breathtaking sounds of a professional group. But for some performers or attendees at the community orchestra concert, the experience may be one that evokes emotion or memories in a meaningful way. Certainly it should not be our prerogative to negate this experience by saying that it is not in some way art, simply because it does not adhere to the competitive standards of some other ensembles.

The first time that I can recall being strongly affected by music, I was not listening to professional musicians and the performance was not flawless. I was at my brother’s high school honors band performance as an 11-year-old, and I had begun playing trumpet the year prior. In the concert, the amateur group was playing a piece to commemorate the recent Columbine shooting. Finally, I understood the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. They made me feel deeply, and even though there may have been technical flaws in the performance, I was moved emotionally to the point of tears.

So, where do these reflections leave this young trumpet player? Without thoroughly developing my technical proficiency, the music that I make may still feel artistic, and it may still move some listeners. But to achieve the greatest possible degree of success, and for my music to be a vehicle that can move entire audiences, perhaps I need to devote attention to both technicality and musicality in balanced proportions.

And thus, the purpose and intended patronage of the Artist and Craftsman Supply Store remains somewhat elusive.  The lesser-skilled patrons will not be exclusively “craftsmen,” while the shoppers with superior artistic abilities will not necessarily be “artists.” Perhaps each person simply desires an outlet for self-expression, whether they produce something in the form of a unique, professionally-produced artwork or something in the form of a craft project. In either case and at all skill levels, their work should be acknowledged as valid and meaningful.



Links of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“The Allure of Liquid Fire: A Look at the Art and Craft of Glassblowing” by Kelly Englert

“A Trip to A Craft Show, To Find Art” by Alexandra Holness

“Finding the Beautiful Before Us: When Craft Becomes Art” by Andrew Swensen

One Comment Post a comment
  1. What differentiates an artist from a craftsman? Should we call those who have “superior” talents and skills as “artists”, while “lesser-skilled” individuals will merely labeled as “craftsmen”? Isn’t this too elitist? Well, I think the two terms are equal, because artwork can be produced in a craft project. This mean that the two words mean the same, or are simply inter-related.


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