arts & crafts

On my last post, I received a comment from my friend Peter, who wrote me, ‘The photographer is much like the artist – they connect with their subject’. And I’ve been thinking about this for the last week, and thought it would be a good idea to focus on the differences and the similarities between arts and crafts, since I have often encountered a certain confusion between the two… and since I myself have worked in both areas. In Hebrew, they are very close to one another. They are written with the same letters. Just a vowel separates between them. Art is omanut, and craft is umanut. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of a foreign language. But were I to write this in Hebrew, I could easily fill the post just with a study of those two nouns.

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common mezuzah, machine made

When Peter speaks of the photographer, he is speaking of the craftsman, and were he to speak of a painter, we could be talking about a house painter, or a decorator, and so on; through all the different crafts that are also used in the production of art. I have seen wood carvings that have adorned ceremonial chairs, that were in fact, very close to artistic sculpture, as well as illustrations in story books… or even in instruction manuals… which made me wonder for a moment, is this art… or craft? To start out with a basic definition of the job description,

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the parchment inside the mezuza

The craft is basically the construction of devices and objects using materials. The dressmaker, the shoemaker, the makers of chairs and tables, and the builders of houses are all craftsmen. Even the maker of a telescope, or an automobile, or a fine pen would be considered a craftsman… up until the industrial revolution. In our time, we have fewer craftsmen, because we rely on machines to produce many of the products we use. But those with discerning taste and the financial assets to support those tastes, are still able to buy ‘hand made products’, which often have an advantage over the machine products now in common usage. I have known wealthy people who wore a Swatch on their wrists… and nowadays, most of the people I know have their watch incorporated in their telephone, so timepieces are becoming less popular as an object of beauty and sophistication. But in many areas of life style, we can still see certain unique objects which have been made by hand, and are especially prized by their owners, and admired by all who see them.

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a mezuzah, hand made by Catriel

The craftsman often learned his or her craft in a trade school or in apprenticeship to a master craftsman, and in the process of first assisting the master, and later producing his own work, improved and perfected his craft, getting better with the years, and producing more beautiful and efficient objects with time and experience. Perhaps, because of my background and education, despite certain reservations I have regarding ‘materialism’ in this world, I do prize beautifully made tools and objects, and have a number of such objects that I have hung onto, for many years. I have a very simple paper weight, for instance, made of ‘box tree’ wood, which has sat on my desk for years and years… handmade, and I enjoy looking at it and using it, because it is so beautifully crafted, even though I no longer have piles of papers, in this computer age, that need being held in place. It is just so well crafted. As a photographer, I used to document the work of a master carpenter, who made familiar objects of wood that were so beautiful that they became prized possessions, and were sold to the wealthy for high prices. My photos appeared in catalogues, and I had the pleasure of seeing them attached to articles in magazines that described the beauty, and the endurance of these creations, and the imagination that provided subtle differences in the work of this master, marking each of his works as unique and dear.

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a throne used for religious ceremony, called the ‘Throne of Elijah’

One can buy the same objects that he produces, made by machine, for popular prices, affordable to any person on the street. But his works were prized and sought out. And given as presents. There is something very unique about his works. It is common for every Jew to mount a little box on the entrance to his house called a mezuza, in which is a piece of parchment which affirms the belief in one god. This box is a cheap item, which is so common here in Israel, that most people take them pretty much for granted. The parchment inside is more costly than the box, because it is inscribed by a scribe on real parchment. But my client, Catriel, made these same boxes by hand. And they are regarded in much the same way as art objects. But they aren’t art. They are masterworks of craft.

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sitting on his throne, Catriel

The artist uses many of the same tools as the craftsman. He or she may work with the same materials. The artist may sketch on a napkin provided free in a café with a ballpoint pen… and it is still art. Or he may sculpt in wood or paint on canvass. The difference between the two, is that the artist makes a personal statement in his work. The craftsman makes the same objects over and over again. But the artist, once he or she has had his say, doesn’t usually go back and do it again. It is a point of honor with the artist. Just as an intellectual conversationalist would not say the same thing over and over again. So the artist needs great amounts of inspiration and imagination. No sooner does he achieve his best, than he has to start over again; once more, starting from basics. The artist opens his heart and soul to his public. The craftsman serves his public, producing material objects for their use, usually according to tradition, and conventions acceptable to the public at large.

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photograph of the hides being prepared to become parchment, art

Sometimes, the line between the two is very thin. The artist may produce a piece of work that is a variation of a work of craft, or may reflect craft in his work. And a fine craftsman may produce a work that is considered completely unique and one of a kind… or even a work of art… in very special circumstances. There was a famous craftsman names Stradivarius, who made violins, and though he made one like the other, and turned out quite a few of them… each of his violins is looked upon today as a work of art. But it was craft.

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painting by Israeli artist Michael Kovner

On the other hand, not every work of art is recognized for its greatness when it is first produced. Nor is every work of art great. There are mediocre artists just as there are mediocre carpenters. But even if the work is great, and is eventually recognized as such, it may have to sit around unappreciated for quite some time before it is recognized. And often, one has to be good in business to succeed, both in craft or in art. And both the craftsman and the artist who don’t have a good business sense, may produce wonderful work, and yet earn no recompense and no acknowledgement from the publics that they serve. An artist walks a tightrope, constantly trying new things, expressing his most personal feelings and thoughts. Sometimes, others are not interested, or do not appreciate what is produced because they haven’t been prepared for the vision. But in every generation, there are those who plunge ahead, inspired by an inner voice that demands expression.

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landscape by Israeli artist Michael Kovner

There is more to be said about the subject. One of these days, I’ll have to write about conceptual art too. That very special format blossomed in the 20th century, and is still quite popular in some circles.

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2 responses to “arts & crafts

  1. “Mezuzah, hand made by Catriel” is amazing… But the others and especially I loved Michael Kovner’s paintings too…
    Last night there was a wonderful television program that I watched. It was about art & craft…. what is art, what is craft… like your nicely written post.
    Today’s world is changing so fastly. Art and craft too… They discussed the paintings that was made on computer with digital painting programs… You can guess this discussions… On the other hand, you know I love to make some painting image with Photoshop… Does it make me an artist? or craftman… But of course when I think of the painters, real painters…. yes, art should be smelt in oil paints… I think, I am classic in these thoughts….
    You did a very nice point about this matter. But I am afraid in the near future this will be the most discussed subject. Thank you dear Shimon, it is so nice to read you. With my love, nia

    • Sometimes we have so much nostalgia for certain smells, and sensual interaction with cultural treasures, that the incidental becomes as important as the essential content. I believe that we are going through a significant cultural revolution. Art on the computer seems no less valuable than on paper or canvas… but on the other hand, not everyone found inside a sheep’s hide, is in fact a sheep. In loving art, it is important to remain discerning. Thank you very much for you comment, Nia.

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