Where is the line between art and craft?

The line between art and craft is a modern one, and it’s resulted in banal, boorish and ultimately meaningless work being foisted on us as art.

Carved cravat, c. 1690, Grinling Gibbons, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

“Was Grinling Gibbons an artist or a craftsman?” a student asked. It’s a fascinating question, and one that points out how we’ve changed our ideas about human thought and endeavor.

The term intellectual is a recent invention, first written down in 1813, by of all people, Lord Byron (a man who was anything but). Prior to that, the literati would have been known as men of letters. They were literate in a time when many people weren’t. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term acquired distinct social cachet and came to mean a person who was educated, artistic, and worked mainly in the realm of ideas.

Grinling Gibbons, c. 1690, after Godfrey Kneller, courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Grinling Gibbons was born in Rotterdam in 1648 to British parents. He learned to carve in the Netherlands before emigrating to London. He rapidly attracted attention from the highest circles, scoring his first Royal Commission in 1675. He went on to be the most celebrated master-carver of his day. His portrait was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller, whose subjects included ten reigning European monarchs, Isaac Newton, John Locke, and the members of the Kit-Kat Club. In other words, Gibbons was working and living with the crème de la crèmeof British society.

So why, in the 21st century, do we call Kneller an artist and Gibbons a craftsman? They would not have made such a distinction themselves.

The Stoning of St Stephen, c. 1680-1700, Grinling Gibbons, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum

Historically, painters and sculptors were held in low regard. The Greeks had nine muses for the arts, and—pointedly—none of them were visual artists. Sculptors and painters were thought of as manual laborers, barely above slaves in the social order. That’s not because they weren’t any good; Greek sculpture, in particular, approached the sublime.

It’s just that, prior to the middle of the 18thcentury, fine artists were considered craftsmen, along with jewelers, weavers, and everyone else who made consumer goods. While they may have been very successful and well-paid, they had no intellectual pretensions.

The Enlightenment changed all this, by casting artists in the role of communicating the civic virtues. This raised their status from artisans to gentlemen. Their training moved from the old apprenticeship/atelier model to formal art schools.

The Enlightenment also brought us the Cult of Genius, with its handmaidens, Feeling and Creativity. The artist no longer primarily tried to render beautiful images; he was engaged in profound and creative thought.

Limewood carving of musical instruments, c. 1690, Grinling Gibbons, courtesy National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Grinling Gibbons’ medium was wood, and it was used for decoration. There’s a modern assumption that there’s nothing profound about beauty, so the artist-as-craftsman is sadly out of touch with our times.

Western society has become caught in a trap where our civic virtues are now considered liabilities. This is vividly demonstrated in the stark contrast between our own dissection of shared values at the same time as Ukraine fights to the death to preserve theirs.

The focus on ‘genius’ is what has landed us in the modern dilemma of having so much banal, boorish, casual and ultimately meaningless material foisted on us as art. The intellectual mind can always be seduced by the idea of transgression, whereas a craftsman generally seeks to raise his standards to the highest degree possible. Given that this is the modern dividing line, I’d personally prefer to come down on the side of craft.

Monday Morning Art School: Narrative painting

The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, by Winslow Homer, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painted at the end of the Civil War, it’s a poignant metaphor for the coming demilitarization.  

The human mind is hardwired for narrative. Long before the written word was developed, our paleolithic ancestors were telling stories on cave walls. Imagination is fundamental to human life.

“Narrative painting” simply means that the painting tells a story. During most of art history, that was the norm. A narrative painting can illustrate a cycle of ideas, as did Egyptian tomb frescoes or Michelangelo’s ceilings in the Sistine Chapel. Or, a narrative painting can illustrate a single moment, as does Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

While narrative painting is well suited for mythology and religion, it was also used to transmit historical ideas. The Death of General Wolfe, for example, is a 1770 painting by Benjamin West that commemorates the deciding affray in the struggle between Britain and France for control of the New World. It could also be propaganda, as with IngresNapoleon I on his Imperial Throne. And it was used to convey moral truths ranging from early Renaissance genre paintings to the great French Social Realist art.

Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage, courtesy Musée d’Orsay

And then came the Cult of Genius, when artists shifted from being craftsmen to being intellectuals. That was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, and among other ideas, it gave us the concept of the enfant terrible, offensive, rebellious artist. In fact, this individualism was so popular that it earned a label: Bohemianism.

The phrase “Art for art’s sake!” meant that all ‘true’ art should be divorced from moralizing, instructive, political, or utilitarian functions. In short, it was art only when it was useless, practically speaking.

“Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone… and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like,” wrote James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Cromwell and the corpse of Charles I, 1831, Paul Delaroche courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes

Pure art would be art that resonated with all people, regardless of their language, histories, or creeds. That idea marks the beginning of modern art. Since it allowed for the development of Impressionism and other forms of modern painting, it was extremely useful. But like all good ideas elevated to the point of religion, it eventually became an impediment to creativity. Much of human understanding lies in culturally-derived images. The cognoscenti may understand the meaning of a pile of bricks on the floor, but the average viewer doesn’t, and doesn’t want to.

(And of course, the cognoscenti was just replacing one set of images with another, with the added insult of being exclusionary. Either you pretended to understand, or you marked yourself out as uncouth.)

Paintings which told a story were either from the dustbin of history, or the province of those odd American realists, the Wyeths. This was the world in which I came of age as a painter. I’m a natural-born storyteller, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, or where I belonged.

Then came the post-modern era, which we could call “meaning without art.” Extracting a scroll from one’s vagina, vomiting paint, or defacing a First Folio of Goya’s Disasters of War may have seemed witty, but hardly required skill or craftsmanship.

In the post-post-modern era, plein air painting—an exercise in realism—is one of the most significant art movements, despite being largely ignored by art institutions. Most plein air painters are didactic by nature. We are speaking about our love of nature, the fragility of our world, and more. The public’s embrace of plein air painting tells us that our audience, too, is hungry for a good story.

Art and fear

Great art doesn’t spring fully-formed from the minds of geniuses. It is made incrementally.

Prom shoes, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Every time a student tells me “I don’t like still life,” I point out that it is the best training ground for painting available to us.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is a book I frequently recommend to students. The title is misleading because it’s less about the insecurities that stalk the artist and more about the reiterative, plodding process that produces great art. If the book does anything, it shreds the Cult of Genius that has dogged the art world since the Enlightenment.

Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romanticism that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism.

Dish of Butter, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. 

Art & Fear comes down firmly on the side of craft. Art gets made by ordinary people like you and me, who work at our craft regularly. We chip away at a problem, and we master it, and we are content… until our minds throw up a new problem. We then repeat the process, and somehow, in all that indefinable chaos, there’s progress.

Nevertheless, there is fear in the art process. I was first introduced to this concept at the Art Students League, where my instructor gleefully announced to her new students, “You’re all terrified!” I’m naturally pugnacious, so my reaction was to deny that, loudly. It’s taken a long time for me to realize that some of my stalling mechanisms are, indeed, fear at work.

Back it up, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. Still life does not have to be about elegant old dishware. 

Fear is one reason artists have studios full of unfinished work. We can either leave it in this state, where it has potential, or finish it so that all its shortcomings are revealed.

A healthy respect for the process can be a good thing, when it stops us from charging in and making stupid mistakes. When I was much younger, I did a surrealistic dreamscape of young mother on a broken-down farm. I was stumped trying to marry my currently-realistic style with the theme. I made the mistake of consulting a professional for a critique. “It looks like an imitation Chagall,” she said. I went home and covered it in a froth of bad paint. When I came to my senses, the original painting was irretrievable.

But fear can quickly become corrosive. I see it when new students are unable to engage in the exercises that I set in front of them, or constantly answer every suggestion with, “yes, but…”

Tin Foil Hat, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas, $348 unframed. There was no point to this when I painted it, but it’s since become my self-portrait.

It is not the beginners who have this difficulty, but people who have achieved some mastery of painting. They have a hard nut of competence that they hold tight against their hearts. To polish and shape it, they have to be able to hold it at arm’s length, but they can’t—they’re afraid that examining it will destroy something vital to their self-image.

I’m speaking as their soul-sister in this, by the way. It’s something that’s taken me a long time to get over.

Not that we ever really do get over our insecurity. Last week, Eric Jacobsen showed me a Charles Movalli painting he particularly admired. “That’s it! I quit,” I said. Of course, I’d said the same thing the week before that, and the week before that, too. In the face of great accomplishment, we are often momentarily cowed.

The difference—as Bayles and Ormond point out in their book—is that we sit back down at the easel and start again. And again. And again. That’s how great art happens.

Arbitrary distinctions

What is art? What is illustration? Does it matter?
Trick-or-Treat! From my brief period illustrating; prints available (DM me).
“I am trying to understand the difference between a painter and an illustrator,” writes a reader.
Paint is a just a medium. You can use it to illustrate, or you can hurl it in meaningless patterns. Conversely, you can illustrate with any two-dimensional medium, including pencils, ink, photography or cut paper. The difference is in intent.
An illustration is usually a visual accompaniment to a text. However, that’s not always true. There are illustrated books (Albrecht Dürer’s Passions, for example) that do not need words at all. There are many children’s books with no words. In fact, one could argue that all of western religious art is illustration. The text (the Bible) was just not written down. Either the intended audience was illiterate or they all knew the story anyway.
Gas Station, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
Illustrators are usually hired by writers or publishers. The work is limited in scope and concrete in character. Fine artists have no middleman between them and the market. They can be as obscure as they wish. But fine artists certainly work on commission, and illustrators often work on spec, so even that distinction is hazy.
There was a time when this question mattered to me. I was trying to make the jump between graphic design and painting full time. I did it by writing and illustrating two books. We are all born with an innate ability to imagine pictures, but I’d disciplined my artistic sensibilities to be subservient to the client. It took these stories for me to loosen up and find my focus. It’s never been a problem since.
Girl in Closet, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
But there’s an insidious way in which this question is sometimes asked. What’s implied is that fine art is somehow better than other forms of artistic expression.
Yes, illustration is a fine craft rather than a fine art. Like tapestry, jewelry, carving, etc., illustration has a practical purpose aside from beauty. Paintings have none, unless you’re using them to plug holes in the wall. If you want to know if you’re an artist or craftsman, ask yourself if your finished product has any tangible purpose. If it’s useless, you’ll know you’re an artist.
The problem lies in assuming that either one is more important than the other. Our modern viewpoint comes from the 19th century Cult of Genius, which mistakenly put fine artists in the category of intellectuals instead of tradesmen.
Kitchen Table, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, plein air painting has a lowly and practical view of the world. It seeks to make pictures that make people happy.
There’s never been any distinction between fine art and illustration in terms of quality. If there ever was a gap, it was bridged long ago, starting with the unknown monks who illuminated books before the printing press was invented.
With the advent of industrialization, individuality and beauty was stripped from the objects we use every day. Brilliant craftsmen-artists like William MorrisCharles Rennie MackintoshMargaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movementclosed the gap between art and function once again. And who in this world would argue that N.C. Wyeth  and his peers of the Golden Age of Illustration are not among the world’s greatest artists?

Yes, art is a business

The problem with worshiping genius is that for every Albert Einstein, there’s an Adolf Hitler.
Aristocratic Heads on Pikes, authorship unknown

Yesterday, a reader sent me an interview with painter Larry Poons. It was in The Art Newspaper as part of the run-up to the release of The Price of Everything on HBO.

Larry Poons is an abstract painter who currently teaches at the Art Students League in New York. He had valuable things to say, but this struck me as absolutely wrong:
“Success is in the studio. That’s the only success there is. The only other type of success is business: it’s not art. There’s nothing wrong with business and there’s nothing wrong with art but they’re two separate things. If you define success as being able to sell something to pay the rent, then that means you’re successful at paying your rent. It doesn’t mean that your art is any good or not.”
Napoleon on his Imperial throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy Musée de l’Armée
I sympathize with his frustration with the high-end art market, but his attitude, shared by many of his peers, is part of the problem. This is the Cult of Genius that has beleaguered art since the Enlightenment—the idea that artists are above the struggles that drive mere mortal men. Prior to the 18th century, artists were considered craftsmen. While they may have been very successful and well-paid, they had no intellectual pretensions.
The Enlightenment asked artists to talk about civics and politics instead of religious values. This raised their status to that of intellectuals, almost gentlemen, in fact. Their training moved from the old apprenticeship/atelier model to formal art schools. For example, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768. Its mission was to raise the professional status of the artist by establishing a sound system of training. Along with these formal schools came the idea that artists were intellectuals.
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, 1704, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, courtesy National Portrait Gallery
The idea of genius was born in the Enlightenment. It was the age of Newton and Napoleon, and it created a curious dichotomy. While governments were being formed on the idea that all men were created equal, certain men—geniuses—were growing ever more more equal than others.
More and more, these geniuses, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, began to operate outside the norms of society. The Cult of Genius brought us some great art, but it also ushered in a dreadful time in Europe. This included Robespierre’sReign of Terror in France, the genius cult of the Nazis, and Stalin’s Cult of Personality. All were possible because Great Men were more influential than unyielding values.
Self Portrait (dressed as an academic, not a craftsman), 1776, Sir Joshua Reynolds, courtesy Uffizi Gallery
As counterintuitive as it seems, in the end this has landed us in the modern dilemma of having so much banal, boorish, casual and ultimately meaningless material foisted on us as art. The genius doesn’t communicate; he proclaims. That means he doesn’t have to listen.
Ultimately, a person who is above money is completely out of touch with almost everyone else. In the end, that kind of attitude is what’s given artists such a terrible reputation in modern America, and why parents don’t believe their kids can make livings in the arts.

What painting means, indirectly

I can’t imagine why running here makes us think about aesthetics. Since I’ll never paint from a photo, you can enjoy the reflections and shadows now.
Mary and I are running on the canal bank, discussing opening and delayed adverbs and adjectives. (I think middle school teachers invented them to torture students.) She gives an example: “Gracefully, Carol runs along the canal.” (Heh.)
I stop and stare at her—any excuse for a break. “Why would anyone teach a kid to write in such an antiquated manner?”
Mary’s a writer, and she’s in love with words. “It might be useful,” she protests. “Chiaroscuro might be obsolete, but there must be times you use it.”
I shudder involuntarily. “Never. It would never work with direct painting.”
This is from Gamblin’s very fine explanation of indirect painting, which you can find here. The monochromatic phase of an indirect painting is basically a value study.
Mary knows that as long as I’m talking about painting I keep running, so she asks me the difference between direct and indirect painting, and how Rembrandt and other classical painters built up their work. Huffing only slightly, I tell her that the artist started with an imprimatura, an earth tone base, and built up successive layers of transparent warm glazes. These were allowed to show through as dark tones in the final work. Opacity was added on the top, as light tones which glowed against the darks.
In the second phase, the artist has added lights, which are also opaques.
The Impressionists essentially invented an entirely new system of painting—direct painting—where a painting is done in opaque layers rather than built up from transparency. This radical technological shift was possible because modern chemistry was developing so many new pigments.
The finished work allows the imprimatura to show through (although in this example, the artist has muddied the darks and let it show through in the midtones).
 I tell her a bit of my own story: I learned to paint indirectly and was doing it until I went to the Art Students League to study. There, Cornelia Foss told me, “If this were 1950, I’d say ‘brava,’ but it’s not.” Tough words, but the best painting advice I ever got.
“But why is that?” Mary asks. “What about direct painting made it right for the 20th century?”
I speculate: indirect painting is more conducive to well-reasoned, planned paintings of academic or religious themes; direct painting is conducive to emotion expression. This puts it in sync with the overstimulated, nervous, energetic pulse of modern life.
“It’s kind of like the difference between a home-cooked and a restaurant meal,” Mary says.
I stop and stare again. Really, at times Mary boggles my mind.
“A home-cooked meal takes a long time to prepare. It is often, literally, a love offering,” she explains. “A restaurant mealeven the best of themis quicker, and is more an expression of what the chef can do.”
Somehow, that goes right to the heart of the matter. Until the end of the 18th century, painters were looking outward—as missionaries of faith and social justice, or as teachers of classical myth and history. We may think those subjects are dated, but they show that the artist was primarily concerned with his audience. After the rise of the Cult of Genius, the artist’s personal vision became paramount.

So I think Mary’s metaphor is apt: indirect painting was a love offering, and direct painting is all about me.
Every day I do one task to prepare for my June workshop in Rockland, ME. Today’s was cleaning the Prius. Meanwhile, what are you doing to get ready for it? August and September are sold out for my workshop at Lakewatch Manor in Rockland, ME… and the other sessions are selling fast.  Join us in June, July and October, but please hurry! Check here for more information.