Artistry, artisanry

>, arts>Artistry, artisanry

At the recent BECon glass conference I had drinks with an artist whose work I really respect. During the course of the idle, “waiting for everyone else to show up so we can have dinner” chitchat, we got to talking about* and how certain topics seem to be cyclical, i.e., they turn up every couple of months even though you’ve already chewed them to death.

“Like the old art vs. craft thing,” she shrugged, “I mean, who really cares? I don’t care what you call me as long as I can do glass.”

I agreed. “Besides, I don’t think a lot of what we call “glass art” is art. I think it’s artisanry. To me, art is all about the content. If what you’re showing off is the properties of the glass, it’s artisanry, not art.”

Across the table I could see her tense, and she got that “if I weren’t being so polite I’d knock off your head and stuff it up your…” look. “And are you saying,” she said carefully, “that what you call artisanry is not as good as art?”

“Of course not,” I said indignantly, and she relaxed–you could almost hear the “whew”–“I think it’s stupid that Americans are so hung up on “aahhhrt” being the only thing with any prestige. In other countries, Japan for instance, an exceptional craftsman is maybe even more highly regarded than an artist.”

Ahem. Oh, yeah:

Since this is my blog I don’t have to adhere to any bloody art professor’s definition, so here goes: I believe that if the primary goal of the work is to show off the properties of the material, or your skill at working with the material, or your skill at making mesmerizing patterns with the material, you’re making craft (or, since that’s a dirty word in most US art enclaves, artisanry). Artisanry is all about taking skillful advantage of the medium.

Art is all about content. Anyone can put content on a piece of paper (or a clothespin) and make art. Good artists do that so it communicates that content to the viewer and hopefully causes some kind of empathic response. And here’s the thing about art: It’s not medium-specific.

By that measure, most of what Lino Tagliapietra does is artisanry. Who says his work shouldn’t be as highly revered (or more so) as, say, a painting by Hockney? Certainly not me, not with my Tagliapietra fixation.

(Remind me to tell you of the time I bought a real, live “Tagliapietra” on eBay…)

Combine effective art content with the craftsmanship of an exceptional artisan…and I think you have a great artist. He not only communicates emotional content effectively, but his superb skill in the medium amplifies and empowers the content. Maybe we shouldn’t call him “just” a great artist, but I don’t know the right word.

And for the rest, I don’t think it’s fair (or intelligent) to place artist above artisan, or vice versa. And I’m not sure where people got the idea that crafts were either practiced by bored housewives crocheting tea cozies or people who were “good with their hands” and (by extension) lacking in imagination. I think it originated with the Manhattan “his art’s better than yours” crowd, which makes it semantic snobbery, not a valid PoV.

So why is it so pervasive in the US?

It’s a pity, because that attitude leads to all this hoohah about art vs. craft and makes artists ignore the tenets of good craftsmanship so they’re called metal sculptors instead of blacksmiths. It also makes the Peter Voulkos school of sculpture more valued than it probably should be while there’s something faintly commercial and tainted about, say, Frederick Hart’s work. (And lemme tell you, once you’ve seen Hart’s Ex Nihilo in person at the National Cathedral, the only thing tainted will be your soul.)

What I wish is that craft galleries (and museums) wouldn’t spend so much time on the defensive, trying to prove their inventory isn’t just as good as “real art.” (And in fact the reason I’m bringing this up is because of a discussion I had with one of the staff at the local crafts museum) But they wouldn’t have to if the US would, as usual, take a worldlier view.

Anyway. End of rant.

Oh. What am I?

Most of the time I’m an artisan (or maybe a labrat, given the amount of experimentation I do). Every once in awhile, and increasingly in things like the Emergents and my glass sketches, the content marries the craft and it becomes art. I suspect I’m no different than most glassists working at my level.

* is the electronic equivalent of a glass artists’ cracker barrel. It’s a great source of information, also a great time-waster if you’ve got other things you should be doing. If you’re interested in kilnformed glass, it’s worth a visit.



  1. melanie keegan August 4, 2007 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    I think gary’s dead on. I’ve seen too much “Art witha capital A” that is sloppy and poorly executed and really detracts from whatever the artist meant to say. You go to school to first find the medium you were meant to work in and then to study how to perfect your skill so you can use it to say what you have to say.


  2. Scary Sarie August 3, 2007 at 10:38 am - Reply

    I think you guys are sort of missing the point–who cares what you are if you do the job well?

    I’m an artist (and I guess artisan, except I’ve never hear anyone call it that instead of craftsman) and have been an artist for 28 years. I’m very good at my mediums which are glass and steel, and nothing leaves my studio that isn’t as perfect as I can get it.

    Galleries have rejected my work because its craft and they’ve als turned me down because its not functional (meaning its not a vessel, usually). If everyone has their own definition of whats desirabel then the only thing that matters is that it satisfys the artist. I believe that if I do a good job, people will accept it. I just have to find the right gallery.

    Now somebody tell me how to do that better and I’ll really be happy. 🙂

  3. gary brown August 2, 2007 at 7:09 am - Reply

    I didn’t mean to put down artists. Though, some whose works I’ve seen probably should have been put down (sorry…couldn’t help it). I think it’s that “art” is this amorphous thing that exists without respect to any particular medium…or skill level for that matter. A person can be an “artist” with zippo artisan skills. Take “performance art”. Heck, I could sit on the corner for 3 days in the winter and get covered with snow and call it “found snowman in three days”. Is it art? I suppose so… Does it display artisanship? No.

    On the other side of the coin, a person can layup a number of hunks of glass and make the perfectly fused piece that has the aesthetics of a banana slug. Artisan? Sure. Artist. No.

  4. Jared August 1, 2007 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    I guess by your definition I’m an artisan..AND PROUD OF IT. It seems like you’re putting down artists, though. I think there’s room in the world for both.

  5. gary brown August 1, 2007 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Labrat. I like that. I can relate to that (like you wouldn’t have guessed that, eh?). Art Labrat.

    In my book, things are what they are. I am quite fond of the Japanese concept of the “living treasure”. Those folks are “artisans”. Let’s see…does the syllogism “all artisans are artists, X is an artist, therefore X is an artisan” apply? I think not. I think what you’ve said is that art is about content while artisanship is about process. I can “do” art without a heck of a lot of skill or knowledge about my chosen medium. Whereas to be an artisan I must be a master/mistress of my medium. To go back to my syllogism… I think that the premise is false. All artisans are NOT artists. You can control your medium to within an eyetooth of its full potential, but without any aesthetic sense. So, where does that leave us… I think contemplating that the “national treasure” is the person that is an artisan who has used mastery of the craft to express an “artistic” idea.

    And further than that, I say not, for I have to practice being an artisan right now with my code or I get beat up by a customer in two weeks!


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