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A work of art, or the art of work?

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?

Image from

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.



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  1. Freethinker

    Your article reminds me more than 30 years ago when I approached the Sydney School of Arts with the aim to learn some techniques for using new materials.
    During the interview they clear say to me that they will teach me how to do that art and what were their expectations.
    I told them that the art work is an expression of the artists and cannot and should not be influenced by what it is the taste of the teacher or judge, got up and left.
    If this is the kind of “experts” in arts that in combination with dealers are putting the artistic freedom of expression is in danger of extinction.
    Few years later I become a good friend of one of the most gifted ceramists in South America. He told me that the UNESCO have invited him to exhibit few of his works to celebrating the 500 years of the “discovery” of the new continent, but with the condition that the pieces of art have to be according to their instructions. The UNESCO never heard of him again.

    Arrogance by those that think that can dictate how the artist can expressing himself on his work and the greed by those that like to use the art to make wealth is what discourage many people to expressing themselves.
    I guess that many writers have the same experience.

  2. king1394

    The concept of alienation of the worker slots in here. When workers serve machines and the profit driven needs of corporations, there is no scope for workers to express themselves through their skills. In time, with the industrial age a thing of the past, we will be forced to revert to human hands and skills. Then we may find a way back to a workplace where art, and expressions of beauty are part of daily work, and the workers are valued for their art

  3. helvityni

    In my view art is seeing something with ‘ new’ eyes, viewing things differently, a new way of seeing…it’s not copying, is about creating…

    Is this the first time that someone is talking about Art here, hopefully not the last… 🙂

    I’ll re-read the post after my visitors have gone home…

  4. bobrafto

    you do go on as if you have a lot to get off your chest.

    Here is a piece of art by Piero Manzoni who declared he is giving something of himself to the buyer of his Artist Shit.
    Yes, you read right, Piero in the 60’s, canned 90 cans of 30gm each of his own shit and they were signed and numbered and sold for their weight in gold. If one is in possession of a can of this shit, it is worth around $80K, probably the most expensive shit on the planet.

    Piero had a write up and unfortunately I can’t find the link but it went something like this “It was with artistic effort that Manzoni expunged the shit …..”

    A friend of Piero’s claimed the shit in the cans are plaster but no one dares to open a can to find out. But can one imagine Manzoni ladling out his shit on scales then into a can and how many days would it take to fulfill his 90 can order?

    And of course we have our own artistic oddities, their is a penis painter on the Gold Coast who goes by the name of Pricasso, apparently he is a hit at hen’s parties, portraits are his specialty.

    And then you have the Penis Painters movement in London.

    Bum painters in the US.

    And, and a Flatulist, a professional farter who went by the name of Le Petomane

  5. Joseph Carli

    I offered this piece up as a subjective interpretation of what I feel about creative work…call it art if you will..I thought some would like a break from the recent intensity of political commentary…I know I did!…But I will confess to more than a liking..a preference perhaps, to sculpture of the “social realism” style…you know..: those reliefs cut onto or into sandstone panels..usually Asiatic…say like Chairman Mao and the gang ; “striding forward with determined intent, the wind lifting Mao’s overcoat tails and the arm pointing accusively with the stern faced proletariates pushing on behind (one step back and down) with their pikes or flags thrust forward”….love it!

  6. bobrafto

    Hey, you’re doing a real good job, my only criticisms and it applies to a couple of others here is that the articles probably encompasses 2 or 3 stories in their length.

    There is something about the requirement of an 800 word story that editors call for.

  7. Joseph Carli

    I try to keep posts to around 1000 words..can’t always work..

  8. Anne

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece Joseph. The word ‘art’ has at least 2 meanings.
    The most common one is in ‘work of art’ – a physical thing created to convey a message.
    The other use of the word ‘art’ is dated but appears as the second person singular present indicative of ‘be’.
    If an experience is considered within the context of the second meaning then every act of s/he is a ‘work of being’ – a real-time manifestation of the person in question – ‘a work of art’.
    A bird in flight leaves no trace of where it has flown. Being now is art now.

  9. Freethinker

    I like the article, it opens a lot of options for discussion.
    Keep posting Joseph.

  10. Joseph Carli

    ” He is intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.” … To wit?

  11. helvityni

    Art is a bit of a black sheep in Australia.

    In the blogging world anything (politics?) that gets people arguing, or fighting, is always a winner, and civility goes out of the window…

    Grown-up people call each other stupid and more… I say , save those ‘naughty’ words for our politicians….. 🙂

  12. Joseph Carli

    If you are interested in my humble observations of art appreciation in Aust’, I see that Australians seem to want their “art” verified by an “official source” as “authentic art” a piece done by a recognised source or is why it takes so long, perhaps even till after death that some get recognised…Art needs the “stamp of approval” before the lay-person would dare to say they like this or that piece..a kind of “looking over the shoulder for approval” before committing…I suppose it is part of the cultural cringe…
    I remember taking a local train from Naples to Rome back in the late seventies and as the crowded train wound along the coast away from Naples, this young man suddenly started to sing a most beautiful aria..just out of the blue…no musical accompaniment and all the people in the carriage just listened quietly..lovely..that was art.

  13. Red Leaf

    Language is about the expression of ideas and sometimes that might take a hundred or so more words than usual. I found this post to be well worth reading and it’s length wasn’t terribly onerous nor even remarkable till I read some of the comments. Words are also tools of intelligent and creative people. This current trend for short reads or sound bites has done nothing for the improvement of the human mind or it’s ability to grasp ideas, understand them and formulate opinions. I found this article enjoyable.

    Having said that, as an artisan myself I have also found that since most people no longer do any real handwork they no longer appreciate the work and effort require to produce a work of art and it’s value is only determined by it’s marketability and not for the sake of the article itself. A sadly common response I get when showing my needlework is: “How much you do think you could get for it?” There is no appreciation of the work itself.

  14. Joseph Carli

    Red Leaf. I found your post interesting for the fact that many years ago, when I “wore a younger mans woes”, I decided I could boost my income by making crafty things out of wood, that being my medium..I even registered my little enterprise..”Geppetto’s Workshop”…and I set to making this and that domestic items out of what I thought were interesting and appealing woods..and certainly, I had interest…I had interest…but not many wanted to pay for the work..which was just as competitive as the more commercial products AND..I might promote; better!..but you see..MY work was viewed as “home-made” and as such did not have a “status label” and so was considered should be priced down if a local skilled dressmaker made an exact copy of a Dior would be considered a lesser product NOT from a material / manufactured point of view (it could even be of higher quality) but from a public perception point of view.

  15. Joseph Carli

    Just remembered something I read of about a younger Albert Namatjira when he started getting noticed…Robert Campbell, head of the National Gallery , Adelaide, dismissed his work as “pot-boilers..of no account” and refused to display them..But when Albert got “recognition”, at a exhibition in Adelaide, Robert Campbell sidled up to him and oilily asked if Albert could let the gallery have a couple of paintings ; “…a little bit cheap.”

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