Craft versus Intellect

Duchamp’s Fountain

“Intellect has the capacity to fall in love with its own creations and to elevate them to the highest place, which is basically a totalitarian claim.”
-Jordan Peterson, from his lecture on chaos and order (23 May 2017)

“Educated men will look at what I do and say that it is useless work. But the words they breathe from their mouths, are as wise as the wind the pass from their asses.”
-Leonardo da Vinci, critique of intellectuals who eschewed practical experience

In 2008, a work of art was sold for $100,000,000. It was not by one of the Old Masters nor was it by an Impressionist. No, it came from Andy Warhol. This painting is ‘Eight Elvises’ from 1963.

What talent is there here? What originality? Modern art movements have given us pop art, conceptual art, Dada. Pondering Warhol’s ‘Eight Elvises’ or Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain, one is left with the nagging question ‘what is art?’ What does it mean to be an artist? I would argue that the contentious debates regarding the nature of art have to do with the fact that two distinct traditions have been welded together over the past five centuries, namely those of the crafts and intellectual pursuits. Given the vacuous nature of modern art, perhaps it is time that one pulls these traditions apart in order to better understand what is going on.

For centuries, what we perceive of as ‘Western art’ was composed of numerous craft traditions. People working with their hands to produce specific products. Painting and sculpture were considered crafts. The arts referred to the Liberal Arts. Note that the Latin root ‘liber’ mean book. It is also part of the word ‘libertas’ (freedom). Indeed, the Liberal Arts (what became the Studia humanitatis, or Humanities during the Renaissance) were for the privileged few. This started to change during the Rinascimento (Italian Renaissance) as Italian craftsmen began looking back to realistic art from the ancient world. Andrew Graham Dixon, while lecturing on ‘The Spiritual in Art,’[1] mentions this in the context of discussing Giotto di Bondone. The impetus for creating realistic, three-dimensional, dramatic and engaging paintings developed out of the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ of the late-Medieval period. Craft was deeply enmeshed in the world of everyday people. Andrew Graham Dixon discussed the textile industry in Florence during Giotto’s life. This was a city surrounded by the slums of wage laborers. Modest brick churches with frescoes, not cathedral with mosaics, could be built quickly and relatively cheaply so that the laboring poor could go to mass. The drive to create images of Jesus to appeal to the working poor and their sufferings meant showing the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ as realistically and emotionally as possible. The centrality of craft held even as painters, sculptors, and architects gained more notoriety in society. Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo were dedicated to their crafts. Just as a brief digression, for a non-Western tradition, one can look at Japan. As late as the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), those we now construe as artists were considered craftsmen. Katsushika Hokusai, designer of ‘Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa,’ was a craftsman. Indeed, his original drawing for that work had to be destroyed as part of the process carving the woodblock prints. The woodblocks themselves were used until they wore out and the resulting prints were worth about as much as a double helping of noodles in the 1830s.

The West invented the notion of ‘art’ as we think of it today. In a recent lecture, historian David Starkey traced the history of art and anti-art as part of an overall argument that the very term ‘art’ is no longer necessary. He also hints at the importance of decorative arts at the very end of his speech. I will build on Starkey’s point in the latter half of this article. Starkey’s speech on what may be described as ‘intellectualizing art and anti-art’[2] centers largely on two men: Giorgio Vasari and Marcel Duchamp. With Vasari, Starkey argues, the intellectual aspects of the lives of painters, sculptors, and architects were emphasized almost as an apology[3] for the fact that these were people who worked with their hands. Thus, we begin to see the intellectual start to overshadow the craft in the world of art. David Starkey also notes that the first recorded use of the term ‘artist’ to refer to a painter is in the eighteenth century. If Vasari was the one who constructed ‘art,’ then Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists deconstructed it. One of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous pieces is his ‘Fountain,’ signed R. Mutt 1917. This was a submission to an art exhibition in 1917, rejected as not a work of art.

The original disappeared. Museums today display reproductions created in the 1960s. David Starkey focuses his attention on Duchamp as an anti-artist or ‘anartist’ (like, ‘anarchist’). Dadaism foreshadowed the conceptual art movements later in the twentieth century. Craft was being driven out of the art movement. Andy Warhol’s pop art, essentially the pet rock of the art world, has almost nothing to do with craft. The incorporation of craft into art, the marginalizing of craft in favor of the concept reveals the dead end of art.

Art is dead! Unlike Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead,’ I say this as a celebratory statement. Modern art has been gentrified and postmodernized into irrelevance. Andy Warhol has name recognition, he had business skill, but no artistic talent to speak of. Now, the wealthiest in society are spending millions of dollars for his (and others) ‘art.’ It is time someone said “The Emperor Has No Clothes!” Gentrification of art is no disgrace as modern art ranges from lacking talent to literally being pieces of shit. Piero Manzoni created 90 small cans labelled ‘Artist’s Shit’ in 1961. Each one contained exactly what was on the label. In 2008, one of these cans of shit sold for $124,528.63. If there is one piece of art that represents the conceptual art movement, it is the ‘Artist’s Shit.’ Modern artists have succeeded in becoming both the least talented and most pretentious figures in all art history, rivaled perhaps only by the tasteless multi-millionaires who but their work and pretend to understand it.

What is needed is a return to the craft traditions. A revival of interest of and appreciation for the craft traditions emerged in nineteenth-century Britain with John Ruskin and William Morris, among others. Increased consciousness of craft traditions was not limited to Europe. One of the people deeply influenced by the ideas of William Morris and John Ruskin was a Japanese philosopher and art collector named Yanagi Soetsu (1889–1961)[4]. He was the founder of the Mingei (Folk Art) Movement in the 1920s-1930s, an expert in traditional Korean and Japanese crafts, founder of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1936, and author of The Unknown Craftsman.

With regard to excellence in the craft tradition, there was one object in particular which Yanagi held up as an ideal: the Kizaemon Tea Bowl. The Kizaemon Tea Bowl was made in Joseon (Korea) in the sixteenth century and currently housed in Tokyo’s Nezu Museum. In a Japan Times article, Yoko Haruhara notes the significance of such pottery in Japanese history: “Produced by country potters in kilns in Korea’s South Kyungsang province, these bowls were originally for domestic use and became treasured by Japanese tea masters and Muromachi Period (1338–1573) warlords for their rustic simplicity and rarity.”[5] The Kizaemon Tea Bowl itself was not created to be held up as a great craft. This beautiful work of supreme craftsmanship was created by an unknown hand for use as a rathe common, though well-crafted, object. In, The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi notes the anticipation he felt when being allowed to view the bowl. “This single Tea-bowl is considered to be the finest in the world. When I saw it, my heart fell. … So simple, no more ordinary thing could be imagined. …The clay had been dug from the hill at the back of the house; the glaze was made with the ash from the hearth; the potter’s wheel had been irregular. The shape revealed no particular thought: it was one of many. The work had been fast; the turning was rough, done with dirty hands; the throwing slipshod; the glaze had run over the foot. … The kiln was a wretched affair; the firing careless. Sand had stuck to the pot. … Made for a purpose, made to do work. Sold to be used in everyday life. …”[6]

Kizaemon Tea Bowl

In The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi de-emphasizes the intellect. He juxtaposes seeing and knowing: seeing is the core and knowing the periphery. Intuition takes in the whole but intellect only takes in part. Beauty is to be found in imperfect objects. Westerners who know anything about Japanese aesthetics might recognize some of this as corresponding with wabi-sabi. Yanagi emphasized the imperfect over the perfect because the latter for him was cold and static, while the former suggested the infinite.
 The Kizaemon Tea Bowl is the result of subtle genius whereas the works of Andy Warhol belong in a trash heap. ‘Art’ as an intellectual contrivance has long overshadowed the arts as respectable craft traditions. The craftsman is a creative force whereas the artist as intellectual a mere conceptual-centric popinjay with little to no artistic talent. ‘Art’ as an intellectual contrivance has long overshadowed the arts as respectable craft traditions. The craft tradition places respect and recognition back into the hands of those who actually work with their hands. Whereas ‘art’ has turned into a plaything of the rich, craft is where true aesthetic value always resided. The craft traditions and decorative arts contain all the creative forces and genius that our species has to offer. The pretentious art tradition has run out of steam. Let art die and craft reign.

[3] I mean this in the old understanding of the term, commonly associated with Plato, as reasoned argument in defense.
[4] Name in the Japanese style: family name first, then given name.
[6] Yanagi Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman.