By Earl Hunsinger
Initially, the father vigorously opposed his firstborn son's chosen profession, feeling that because of their high station in life, it was beneath their dignity to have him pursue a career as a mere workman. He had his sights set higher for his son, wanting him to pursue something nobler, more respected, such as a career in the army or government service.
His mother, who was more understanding, only said, "But if our child cannot be anything more than a painter―why, we must be content, and God willing, let us hope he will be a good one."
His father's attitude was not unusual for the time. Because they worked with their hands, for centuries people that pursued professions that are considered artistic today were lumped in with the other manual laborers.
This has had an influence on the perception of crafts today and on what might be regarded as an artificial and somewhat fuzzy distinction between arts and crafts. But we're jumping ahead. Let's start in the early days, in this case a couple of thousands of years ago.
In fact, the Greek word used for a painter or sculptor was 'banausos'. This word literally means mechanic, which reflects how such 'artists' were viewed at that time, since the ancient world looked down on manual laborers, viewing them as socially inferior.
The attitude of the ancient world persisted into the middle ages, which is why for the most part painters and sculptors from earlier centuries remain anonymous. Just as with any skilled laborer, their technique or workmanship might have been admired, but not enough to make them famous.
As ancients had devised a system of seven liberal arts, the middle ages saw the creation of seven mechanical arts. As the liberal arts were to be arts of mind, the mechanical arts were supposed to represent arts of hand. Even with this classification, painting and sculpture occupy subordinate positions, being merely subcategories, along with other trades.
Leonardo da Vinci argued against the low esteem in which painting was held compared to the so-called liberal arts of his time, which included poetry and music. After discussing the superiority of a painting of a beautiful woman over a written description of a beautiful woman, he said, "You have ranked painting among the mechanical arts but...
...in truth, if painters were as apt at praising their own works in writing as you are, it would not lie under the stigma of so base a name. If you call it mechanical because it is, in the first place, manual, and that it is the hand which produces what is to be found in the imagination, you too writers,...
... who actually sit down to pen what is devised in your mind. And if you say it is mechanical because it is done for money, who falls into this error―if error it can be called―more than you? If you lecture in the schools do you not go to whoever pays you most? Do you do any work without pay?"
Which brings us down to our time, and our initial question, is it art or craft? While painting, sculpture, and architecture have gained greater respect since Michelangelo's day, a new bias has emerged.
Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the old bias has survived in a weaker form. Artists are now respected as gifted, as geniuses, as divinely inspired. Crafts are just stuff people make.
Is there any other difference between arts and crafts? And, if you do crafts, how do you make the transition to being an artist? The word craft comes from the German word kraft, which means power or ability.
Perhaps the Canadian government is right. After discussing the difference for several months, they reached a decision that may remind you of the poets that Leonardo criticized. They said that artists self-designate, that you are an artist if you claim to be one and a craftsman if that's what you claim. In Canada at least, self-promotion seems to be the key.
It's been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the same applies to art. There are paintings hanging in modern art galleries that look like a child made them for his mother, and not a very talented child.