Vincent Van Gogh famously sold one singular painting to a family friend. He was not a success. It is hard to know if Anna Boch bought the La Vigne Rouge on canvas out of pity, or whether she loved the painting. What we can be sure of is that Vincent Van Gogh did have admirers, only none of them came from the public sphere, which thought him as close to a deranged madman as anyone could be. Vincent’s admirers were the men who were cut with the same cloth. Gauguin thought his work was astounding, and though he critiqued Van Gogh’s craft, he maintained his admiration for Van Gogh’s work long after the two separated, as the result of an argument.
Today we think only of entertainment. Subjective has become the watchword. A beholder is the highest authority on a piece of art, regardless of their understanding of the form. However, that logic does not hold, since it is clear that many masterpieces were either ignored or derided in the era which they were created, and of course, tastes change. Shakespeare was by no means the most successful or popular playwright of his time. Nirvana was a failing band until a nondescript English journalist no one in America had heard of called them America’s Beatles. If the genius is lucky then their craft will be recognised while they are at the peak of their powers, but I feel like such talent or vision is seldom actualised or fully recognised.
Yet anyone who has toiled over a piece of art for weeks; a painting, film, novel, graphic novel, of a symphony, Knows only to well that there is craft at the centre of any piece of art. How well that craft is honed will have a lot to do with how any single piece will stand up to time, and become a masterpiece.
What if we can have the best of both worlds? Well we do, and that world is found in The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Quentin Tarantino, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Martin Scorsese, The Roots, Naomi Novik Spike Lee, Joe Rogan, Imelda May, Eddie Izzard, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Alain Mabanckou, Gaspar Noe, Jon Ronson, Seckou Keita, Catrin Finch, Sussanna Tamaro, and Robert Louis Stevenson (in case you haven’t guessed from perusing my list, I am a writer). Every one of those artists has achieved commercial and critical acclaim. They are all obsessed by craft, They are a portion of the cream of the crop (There are more I haven’t mention of course, and some more who never made it), and they have been able to make a living and convince people of their own time that they are brilliant. All in all, we know it is possible to appreciate the craft of an art-form; mathematics of music, highlights and shadows of photography, the subtle art of a sentence break, graceful use of iambic pentameter. It is unclear, by contrast, that craft is driving the Netflix revolution. It seems more like a conveyor belt designed to feed the eyes of the times, rotating on repeat.
It is not clear that people understand the true difference between the craft embedded in art and the beauty that comes with pure entertainment. It seems likely that accidental, or unskilled beauty will not be long-lasting. However, when the two aspects of art are entwined; subtle craft with captivating sensationalism, the life span of the art piece grows exponentially, and it has every chance of becoming a bonafide masterpiece.
Alan Moore said that Frankenstein was the first-ever true science fiction story, but that it was an accident, a side effect of writing a fantasy novel. Mary Shelley lived in a time of monumental change, driven by scientists, medicine men, and chemists. One such man, Luigi Galvani, wanted to bring people back to life using electricity. He failed, and though she did not witness the experiments, Mary Shelley decided to craft a world built around a successful attempt, since to her it offered up stunning ethical, fantastical, chemical and moral questions about the nature of humanity. Thus, she crafted a new genre out of the fundamental grammars of fantasy fiction, already laid down, and novel scientific ideas.
It is odd to talk about craft today since we live in a world inundated by adaptations. Lion King is Hamlet. Marvel’s Thor began his life in Norse myths. Guy Ritchie reinvented Sherlock Holmes, and then Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat did it again. Star Trek was recently born again. The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, Good Omens, and Lucifer have made it to the television screen. Gone Girl. The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. No Country For Old Men. The Sunset Limited. Nothing that has ever been written is safe from being adapted. James Bond has been entirely reinvented multiple times over the last fifty years. Some of the films are staggeringly far removed from the Fleming original golden-eyed vision.
Adaptations are an interesting place to end my chat about craft. I love adaptations when they are done right. One brilliant adaptation is Wes Anderson’s revamped version of Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. He took the Dahl jigsaw, moved the pieces around, added a few of his own, and then put the picture back together so that the story now belongs to both the author and the filmmaker. There are awful adaptations, one would be I, Frankenstein, starring Aaron Eckhart, where the filmmakers missed the mark by so far it is embarrassing. They simply had no idea how Mary Shelley’s story had played respectfully with the grammar of fantasy stories to create something new. They did not do their homework in the way Wes Anderson did. He went to the Dahl house, he wrote the script there, he built his first models there. He wanted to be in the world of Dahl, to try and capture some of the essences that gave Dahl his grammar, his rules. Then Wes did what every good adapter should, he bent the rules into a new shape which fit his aesthetic.
When we think of people who have become iconic, we forget how exactly they became icons. Very few people know for instance, that Pablo Picasso was not originally an abstract painter. He was an orthodox painter first and mastered the craft, he could have made a very good living without breaking the grammar of painting and flipping it on its head. He was a well-rounded and well-crafted painter long before he let his visions run wild.
Behind every masterpiece, there are centuries of craft. No story is truly original, anyone who tells you they can be is lying. Every story, or painting, or symphony is built on a bedrock of crafted art handed down through the generations. Those rules, grammars, mathematical rhythms, and inspired timescales are the raw material with which an artist creates something new.
Without a healthy respect for craft, and disrespect enough to bend the rules into a new craft, then art that is driven to entertain will drift into history without ever having made its mark. However, let’s strike a balance because some of the greatest artists — potential and actual — have drowned in the craft, forgetting to take a breath and entertain the audience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using great craft to create something fun.
Craft is essential for artistic excellence. Entertainment captures attention. A combination of both creates a history-making masterpiece. Those will never be forgotten. Even obscure masterpieces are remembered by at least a few devout admirers.