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What is Art or Craft? By Simon Burns-Cox

This week the age old debate of ” What is Art or Craft? ” raised its ugly head. This discussion has been going on for centuries but just where exactly does Stone Sculpture or Carving fit into the scenario?

Working in both Stone and Marble requires a traditional set of craftsmen skills such as drawing, carving, and polishing which Art Schools do not seem to teach these days.  Many a phd student in sculpture has come to ask me for advice about how to cut a piece of stone.  I learnt my skills from craftsmen and artisans both here in the U.K. and Italy. While, they in turn, learnt from their forefathers back to the times of Ancient Rome.

The distinction between ” What is Art or Craft ?” did not exist until the 1400s. Up until then, Artists and Craftsmen worked collectively creating their wares which were bought by people who appreciated their work but also wanted to improve their social status.

By the 1400s, the distinction between Art or Craft began to appear when Artists decided to create their work individually and persuade patrons to pay them for their work on the basis of merit. Art was seen as a form of expression of the emotions while Craft was a form of work such as moulding or carving where objects had a value beyond their function.

As a result, Artists and Sculptors began to have lofty ideas calling themselves “Fine Artists” while The Guild Traditions such as Metal or Stone work became a second tier known as “The Decorative Arts or Crafts” particularly in the Western World.

Some disagreed, however, with this notion including John Ruskin, William Morris, Eric Gill and Roger Fry.  John Ruskin said that “there is no existing highest-order art but that it is decorative. Get rid, at once of any idea of decorative art being degraded or a separate kind of art”.

Eric Gill agreed with him saying ” the word ‘art’ first of all meant skill but though that is the original meaning of the word, we have nowadays completely forgotten it, and have come to think of art as though the word did not mean all human works whatsoever, from drainpipes to cathedrals, from paperweights to statues of saints, from street cries to song and symphonies but only the special works of special people who paint pictures, carve and mould statues, write books and poems, and design buildings to be looked at”.

Paul Greenhalgh of The Victoria and Albert Museum London said that ” the decorative arts were and are disenfranchised art, the arts not fine. They bring two things simultaneously to craft: art and the crisis of being denied the status of art”.

As a Sculptor and Letter Carver working primarily in Stone and Marble, I have no illusions or pretensions of making ‘fine art’ as I am foremost a craftsman. You can call my work Art or Craft but ultimately, it boils down to the fact that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.