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A work of art … or … the art of work?

The motivation for this piece came from four flat-box displays of ladies embroidered cotton/lace handkerchiefs. I had purchased them some years before at a garage sale for the pitiful sum of fifty cents each box … one from Nth Ireland, two from Switzerland and the other from China. Looking at them in their tissued, flat boxes, with the delicate lace-edges folded into diamonds or squares, the brilliant white contrasted with the small embroidered flowers and sundry delicate patterns, I thought them too, too beautiful to be used other than as a display. So I made four frames and placed those “works of art” behind glass to be admired rather than soiled. I could imagine the girls or women hard-at-work, worrying over those pieces of cloth. Pieces of work became pieces of art … hence the title of this article!

I am an artisan (tradesman) … my father was an artisan (stone-mason) … the people who made those hankies were artisans, a multitude of people producing, constructing, moulding, knitting and on and on are artisans … coming from the French; “without art”.

Getting back to my father – the stone-mason – in his employment around Adelaide he built many stone walls and such. He built that curving weather wall along the Glenelg foreshore … by the sideshows (it is gone now). He told me years later that if I was to go to one particular place along that wall, I could see, shaped within the stone work, a map of Italy, with all the provinces in varying shades of stone, built cunningly into the wall! Indeed; a cunning stunt! Artisan becomes artist!

So perhaps it could be proposed: Who stationed “artists” and “artisans” in their prospective environs? What are the boundaries of these environs, ie; when does artisan become artist and vice-versa? Can art be interpreted as the “one-off” piece of deliberate intent? If an artisan uses his craft skills to produce a “one-off” article for decoration or beauty, does that one piece become a work of art? Likewise, if the artist takes a “one-off” work and by reproductive prints, mass-produces many images, does that work then become craft?

Are there then any boundaries to “art”? Does art exist in itself? Or is it an adjunct to physical existence … and not a separate construction of the imagination? And if it was, then surely every wicked creation, every insidious act could also be construed as a “work of art” alongside sublime desire! For wasn’t it Alexander the Great who volunteered that “war, is the greatest art”?

Perhaps the boundary between Art and the Artisan can be adjudged as; Artisan being a measure of one’s craft skills, whereas art; the measured, skillful baring of one’s soul! While there is chance of ridicule in the former, there is every chance of absolute condemnation in the latter. How deeply we choose to express one or the other is perhaps a judgement on one’s personal strength of character.

Recently, I was told an anecdote by an acquaintance at a familial gathering where he inadvertently revealed the true story of the deliberate killing of a pet dog … a terrier belonging to one of the members of that gathering when he was a young man who left home to go overseas and left his pet terrier in the care of his father. Here is the gist of the email exchange (I have removed names):

To ‘B’

“What a fuckin’ great story there is in there about the terrier … oh, fuck!, ’B’, you could place it just as you tell it; in the closed environment of a parlour (not the balcony … too casual) replete with a tad of your “tee hee-ing” … but not cruelly, rather as innocently unaware … until … until the sudden realisation … oh … the sublime sorrow of it all … you have to do it, ‘B’. It almost writes itself! ‘J’ “

(Reply from ‘B’)

“Ummm …er! I thought that’s what I have done … written the story! The balcony was where it happened, we were all around a table, it stopped being casual when the story sank in. Why would I change anything?”

To ‘B’

“To me it was an anecdote … sure, it has the ingredients of a story … it has the characters and the core ingredient of the emotion for a story … but told in such a banal way … such things are but the peripherals of what creates a “hunger” for a reader seeking insight into the feelings of both (in this case) the perpetrator of the core cruelty, the sudden awareness of the victim whose dog it was … and … most importantly … for “he” (in this case being you: the teller) who inadvertently blurts out in all innocence, the act of brutality against not just the dog, but vicariously, against the man’s own son in which it now becomes obvious (at least to a sensitive reader) that the killing of the poor terrier was the father’s “killing” of any feelings for the homosexual son … and here was “you”, in an age far removed from the act, delivering that final death-blow that perhaps and I suspect the father had calculated long ago you would one day do … a cowardly act from “beyond the grave” on the father’s part.

I remember being told of an act of cruelty against animals by this gross workman on a building site, that I can never forget … but the extra cruelty that he inflicted with his wanton act is that I feel I cannot tell of his brutality to any other person, lest I too in cruelty then deliver that horror of imagination of witnessing the distress of the animal. The bastard has inadvertently gathered me into his confederacy of cruel secrecy.

To me, the “telling” of a yarn is, if it is done properly, like delivering a singular present into the hands of the reader or listener … and as we know, sometimes the best, most valuable presents come in the smallest of packages.

Sure, you have told one story … but to me the “real” story lurks underneath the familial gathering there on the balcony … Reg’s … Joe.”

Can everybody be an artist … or is there art for everybody? I’m certain the answer is “yes” to both … although there may not be a market for everybody’s “art”! There is a risk of mockery in too much display and, I’m sure many of us are aware that the road between flattery and mockery is very short and very straight! But here again, the depth of soul-baring would, I’m sure, lift that sublime piece towering above the dross, such is the power of sincerity and in the end, there being so many avenues of material, visual or musical expression these days, the Andy Warhol claim of 15 minutes of fame may just be around the corner for all of us. The big question is: Would you want it?


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  1. Jack Russell

    “The big question is: Would you want it?”

    I think creativity IS a baring of the soul – a very deeply personal expression of self. An extrovert would want it, and all that comes with that exposure, but an introvert would definitely not.

    Me? From experience, not.

  2. Chris

    Thank you, Joseph, and Jack. I think it depends upon who you are. Harper Lee didn’t handle her fame very well, iirc.
    I am an introvert, yet I still want to have my novels read and admired. We all approach our own artistic endeavours differently, from cooking to gardening, to writing. When I think of a plot construct that I know is clever and will engross and delight my readers, yes, I think I am an artist.

    It’s when you don’t get the reward, that the art becomes work and somewhat worthless at the same time. But that’s artists for you, 95% of us can’t make a living off our art.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful piece.

  3. Joseph Carli

    Chris…I think one of the most challenging things for a writer these days is the swiftly shifting emphasis of themes or relevance..There is the eternal ones of passion, but even there, one has to tread carefully lest one stumbles into verboten territory, as some “passions” are now too socially dangerous to touch…one wonders where Lewis Carroll would be if he was to practice his “arts” nowadays…and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”…certainly some of Hemingway would be spurned as too “Alpha Male”…whereas ; Anais Nin . . .

  4. Chris

    Thanks for the reply, Joseph. While I agree that some of those famous writers of the 20th century probably would have languished in the sea of ‘literature’ that is what we see now. I am not sure their views and writing wouldn’t have found an audience today. Just look at the millions of new authors who think they can write about sex and love – and they get some traction from the ability to publish online cheaply and get clicks from social media. The traditional publishers won’t touch them, or me. You need luck above all else is what I think is the reason some succeed and some don’t (apart from ‘connections’ that is).

    70 years ago it was hard work to write. Think ‘Captain’ WE Johns and Biggles – did it all by pen and paid someone to type it up. There were a lot less people and reading books, novels in particular, was the stuff that the richer people did. (That might be the case today anecdotally – didn’t see a bookstore in the Phillipines on last visit…)

    Back to artisans and art though. Isn’t the word artisan becoming a term used to describe someone who, by economic necessity (can’t earn a wage in the modern economy) needs to pursue anything they are good at (beer or pickle making anyone) in order to scrape by in our very unequal society?

    Cheers, bro. You are doing a good thing in this place

  5. Freethinker

    IMHO, when an artisan use his skills and creativity to express his feelings or views, the work becomes an art.

  6. Rossleigh

    Joseph, your suggestions about Nabokov, Hemingway and others sounds convincing until you remember that Milo has an audience…

    Ok, his publisher might have dropped him, but the point is still worth considering.

  7. Joseph Carli

    Freethinker…Rossleigh…both good points worth taking into account…f#ckin’ Milo…what can one say ?

  8. Rossleigh

    Yeah, the thing that frightens me about contemporary times is not that political correctness is stifling the outrageous. It’s more that unless one is Andrew Bolt or ISIS, then nobody want to publicise you.


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