The motivation for this article came from four packets of ladies’ cotton lace handkerchiefs. I had bought them some years before at a garage sale for the princely sum of fifty cents each. One was from Nothern Ireland, two from Switzerland, and one from China. Looking at them in their flat boxes, with the delicate lace folded into diamonds and squares, the brilliant whiteness and small embroideries of flowers, folk images or other set-patterns around the edges and in the corners, I thought they were too, too beautiful for their intended use so I made four frames and placed those “art of work” behind glass to be admired rather than soiled. I could imagine the girls and women (for that would be the reality) sweating over those pieces of cloth. Pieces of work became pieces of art, hence the title of this article.
Another excuse for this article comes from a dispute I am having with a writer on the whys and means of artistic licence. In my calculation, the presumption of “art for art’s sake” is a modern affectation that cannot be justified except in the market place for commodity exchange … the historical creation of what we call “art” was once the work-a-day depiction of cultural hopes and activities. The coincidence that such hieroglyphic imagery has a pleasing appearance to human senses and sensibility is more accidental purity of line and length combined with colour and pleasing perspective.
Certainly, there were some plundering tribes that made use of cultural depiction to amaze and frighten the opposition and then in the more sophisticated societies, the wealthy commissioned artisans to depict statuary and icons for decoration. But these were restricted to the wealthy and state propaganda, the rise of “art for art’s sake” was still a long way away.
I am an artisan (tradesman carpenter). My father was an artisan (stone-mason/bricklayer). The people who made those hankies were (or are) also artisans. A multitude of people producing, constructing, molding, knitting and on and on and on are artisans (from the French: ‘without art’). Getting back to my father the bricklayer (you were wondering why I put him in?) … my father came to Australia from the north of Italy before the 2nd world war. Back in Italy he was a stonemason. Out here where there was not much call for ‘stonies’, he worked under the more familiar nom de plume of bricklayer. But in his employment around the city and suburbs he built quite a few stone walls and such. One was the long weather-wall along the foreshore at Glenelg (in Adelaide). He told me years later that if I was to look at a certain place on that wall, I would see – shaped within the stonework – a map of Italy with all the provinces in varying shades of stone built cunningly into the wall (a stunning,no; a cunning stunt!). Artisan becomes artist!
It stands to be proposed: When and 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? Who adjudicates on works that can be either? What can be done to redress the problem of “artistic” excess?
Perhaps the first true “artist”, that is, the first person who deliberately constructed a feeling for the sheer pleasure of it, was, perhaps, the person who, seeing the drabness of the cave so depressing, went outside and gathered up a handful of flowers, took them inside, placed them strategically and well, the rest is history! Many a person has gilded their drabness with a “bouquet of lilies” and received just reward for their initiative!
There is another boundary, a rather more insidious thing, a political thing … a class thing, hardly more ‘enforced’ than now, at this point in time, where the “artist” must be “educated” into the hierarchy, or be politically “in tune to the current needs of the populace!” This has polarized creative works into “Creative art” and “Marketable art”.
This combination of evils – being class-controlled by nurture – locks the more industrious of the producing class out of the race, being, as their ancient forebears, too busy “gutting the mastodon” to have time to become ‘illuminati-ed’ into the “mysterious paths of creativity”, it has come to the point of my mocking. It’s just that I cannot abide the pretentious waffling of the “artistic” clique that claim unique ability to sway or impress upon the collective desires of the populace such mundane predictability.
There are no boundaries. “Art” does not exist in itself, but rather as an adjunct to physical experience and cultural existence. It is not a separate construction of the imagination. If it was, every wicked deed, every insidious act must also be construed as a “work of art” alongside sublime desire. No longer do we aspire to the heroic deed or moment as depicted in Odyssey or Aenied, easier to descend to the lowest common denominator. Elitism in “art” has created a dearth of imagination in the population. So now we are indoctrinated to accept an “image” of the “artist”, the falsely constructed behaviour, the “fop”, the contrived personality ponceing around with those two inseparable companions: angst and ecstasy.
Art has a social obligation – a social objective – but it has been perverted by a market mechanism. There is a serious distortion of our perceptions of achievement within the realms of creativity once we accept the lie of “art for art’s sake”. This is a postmodern prescription and debasement of a noble act. We have given over both riches and recognition to those who ill deserve and abuse both and we receive (unlike our cave-dwelling ancestor) little or no representations of our collective struggles in return. The progression to true artistic depiction is a one way street: The artisan has every qualification to aspire to true art (by “true art”, we mean creative art, including that which is esoteric or aesthetic) because of their connection with physical activity or cultural ambition. The skill needed to envisage, conceive practicalities, collect materials and thoughts and then to “mold” all this plasma into a cohesive design, makes experience in the practical work-fields an essential qualification for the undertaking of an artistic project. That and the emotional trysts of success and failure, strength and weariness, love and loathing of the work involved, gives the artisan all the training needed for creating a “work of art”. The “artist”, conversely, rarely – very rarely – becomes artisan … they just do not have the skills.
Which leads us to ask; who judges on what is a “work of art”? Who indeed! This leads us back to my statement concerning class boundaries. Invariably, it is in the interests of a certain class to maintain “ownership” and therefore set a “monetary value” on pieces of “art”. The judges, therefore, tend to be those who collect, contract, earn a living by, or just generally set commercial boundaries to Objets d’art, whatever material they be.
This narrow-minded presumption confines the creation of beautiful objects or imaginative constructs of the mind again to those “qualified” to create!
A parable: A builder engaged in the construction of a room decided to enhance a window with a little Australiana scene carved from wood and fixed on the surface of a window so that when the sun shone through it formed a “three-dimensional-silhouette”. A rather pleasing effect! A visitor, admiring this scene asked the builder (ignoring the possibility that they could create such a work):
“Who made the carving?”
“Oh, we got a bloke in to do it,” the builder replied.
The visitor then asked the owner:
“Who was the person that did the carving?”
“You’re looking at him!,” the builder said.
The visitor raised one doubting eyebrow in query and had to be reassured by the owner. The insinuation is there. And that, I presume, is where the artisan is expected to remain.