• About Art & Craft

About Art & Craft

This essay refers to a TV programme on Swiss TV channel SRF, called “Kulturplatz” (“cultureplace”), on 7th September 2022, “Von Kunst und Kunsthandwerk”, in which the journalist Eva Wannenmacher visits, among other places, the only school for wood sculpture in Switzerland in Brienz. Despite you probably not being able to see this programme, I still think our essay on it is relevant to English speakers as we discuss some generally relevant material. One of the main reasons for the programme is the enormous increase in interest in arts and crafts. This increase is seen as a reaction to the encroaching digitalisation of our entire environment, in which the so-called “hand-made”, haptic unicum, is disappearing more and more, and a kind of egalitarianism is spreading in almost all aspects of people’s lives.

I was extremely disappointed by this programme, and felt the need to talk about it with my professor, the German artist and philosopher of art, Martin Rabe (born 1942).

Sibylle: The entire programme seemed to be permeated by the self-image so popular in Switzerland: our beautiful country, in whose security safe and happy people live and above all, such a happy country life exists with equally happy cows, shining mountains, romantic lakes and valleys. There was almost nothing in the report on the actual subject matter: art and craft.

Martin: The Swiss are professional packaging artists! They can do this to the point of self-packaging – wrapping themselves up in William Tell, who apparently never existed and was invented by a German, Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805). Schiller was promptly used as an example in this show. The art of packaging reaches a certain climax when “dirty” money is repacked into “clean” money and the Swiss cross of the national flag appears on countless Swiss products, not so much as a cross, but far more as a “plus point” in advertising terms.

The art of packaging in this programme went so far as to pack a matter into a question that doesn’t even exist as such: what is the difference between art and craft? Consequently, only stupid generalities can result when answering questions no one can seriously ask. We’ll get to that in detail later. Since I enjoy writing, I came up with these three lines after watching the show:

Peace reigns in Switzerland,

If by master craftsman’s hand,

Flows a very special art-verstand. (understanding of art)

Sibylle: To be more precise, the question that should have been explored: where does craft end and art begin? To this end Eva spoke extensively with various craftspeople. They provided information about the emergence of a certain “artistic will” in them during work processes and the subsequent happy fulfilment in art.

Not a word was said about what art is and means according to its existence, as if this were clear and everybody knows it. I can only say: it missed the point! I was particularly annoyed about this because, especially in contemporary art, it has long since ceased to be clear, or even asked, what makes a work of art a work of art? Everything is blurred into endless talk, as “art is what one declares to be art”. A thesis often invoked, and completely meaningless, since art has always been dependent on the experience of the recipient and how he/she experiences it, understands it, and brings it to expression. This recipient, however, must have knowledge and the ability to interpret, and this is exactly what almost everyone lacks at present. Knowledge about art is lacking, and this was glaringly evident in all the participants and curators interviewed in the programme. They were commenting on something packaged in something they did not know.

Martin: The irrational character of art seems to allow everyone to talk about it as they please: this posturing is known as “verbalised idea art”. In reality, the irrationality of art is only another form of rationality and this is also only possible in art. This cannot exist at all in craft. Example: we do not evade the reality of our life more securely than through art; and we do not connect with it more securely than through art. This freedom of art takes place in the freedom of people’s consciousness, and therefore art always arises in people’s consciousness as an “idea”.

Right at the beginning of the show there was a very typical heavyhanded, but always good-sounding misinterpretation: the craftsperson has to take care to work “in accordance with the material”. This is precisely what does not exist in art, in art it is just the opposite: art wants to OVERCOME matter, material, to leave it behind and appear as an “ideal in material”. Schiller speaks of the block of marble, which through the hand of the artist becomes an “idea in marble”, overcoming its naturalness and revealing the spiritual.

A fitting quote from Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919) comes to mind: “Whatever importance one wants to attach to the secondary reasons for the decline of our crafts, the main reason, in my opinion, is the lack of any ideal. The most skilful hand is always only the servant of thought. I fear, therefore, that all attempts to restore to us the old crafts are useless. Even if it should be possible to train skilful workers in our professional schools, who have perfect mastery of the technique of their craft, there will not be much to be done with them if they have no ideal to serve as a standard for their work... painting is a craft like carpentry or blacksmithing, it follows the same rules.”

The idea, which arises in the consciousness of man, and has an ideal is free from any purpose or use, is the mother of the arts.

This is forebodingly expressed by the pre-Socratic Xenophanes (deceased 478 B.C.), who pondered how forms of art can be found in man? And his insight, still valid today, is: “Change of consciousness causes change of form”. And that is why the arts are reflected in all areas of life of the creative human being and form relationships: to religion, to nature, to society, to the sciences, to history, and above all to the world of ideas of human beings. Art aims at a world view. All this cannot flow from craft and be grasped by craft. It however, require craft, for without craft no talent can open up. That’s probably what Renoir meant. Art is a free form of human expression, just like language, singing or dancing. It is free from all purpose and never aims at the useful. But this is exactly what craftsmanship does. In the programme, the curator explains: today, the difference between art and craft has been dissolved. The profession has modernised itself in order to be freer in the craft.

Sibylle: if we address modernisation, then this can only be done responsibly if we know something about what has gone before, our history. But of course we heard nothing about that, again quite typical: lack of knowledge!

As a Swiss-British citizen, however, I have a lot to say about this, because the connection between art and craft has its roots in the late 19th century in Great Britain and Ireland. There, as a result of early industrialisation, industrial mass production had already taken hold in many areas and displaced traditional crafts. The ugliness of design outside any aesthetic criteria, shoddiness of execution, coupled with cheap substitute materials were interpreted as a crippling of human virtues as well as of any art-orientated creativity The idea of progress threatened the beauty of old handmade products, and as a nostalgic reaction to this, people demanded that handicrafts be given back their artistic character (William Morris, 1834 – 1896). Art from nostalgia and not from the will to make art. Uniqueness was to adorn design again, the character of the unique. No-one had the idea that handicrafts could produce works or art; they merely used the expression as an artistic character in order to distance themselves from the machine made: art versus machine! As mentioned at the beginning: the question posed in this show does not exist.

At the end of the 19th century, along with GB and Ireland, the monarchies of Austria and Germany took a leading role in saving craftsmanship. The first technical college for woodworking was founded in 1870 in Hallein, Austria as a “woodcarving school”. Training centres for textile processing developed in Vienna and especially in Vorarlberg; Bohemia was an important centre for ceramics; specialist glass schools were established in the Czech Republic and Tyrol; goldsmithing and metalworking in Steyr, Felach and Fulpmes – all in Austria and Tyrol.

These developments found virtually no echo in Switzerland. That is why the term “modernisation”, as mentioned in the report, should only be used here in a very limited manner.

Martin: Regarding the necessary historical knowledge, the presentation of the book on colour theory comes to mind, which was highlighted in the show as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a complete work of art). Quite apart from the fact that, despite attempts by ingenious artists to this day, it has not been possible to create a complete work of art at all, from the combination of image, sound and word, an investigation into colour has at best something to do with science, but not with art. The romantic painter and contemporary of Goethe, Philip Otto Runge (1777 – 1810) carried out some wonderful experiments in this field. To his art theory Runge added text about the colour sphere, about which he corresponded with Goethe (1749 – 1832). He also created the first three-dimensional colour system. He summarised his colour theory in the conclusion with this simple sentence: “In the end, it comes down to your feeling (Gemüt)!” ... in the painting process in front of your easel!

The voluminous book presented in the programme may be of interest to printing experts. However, the objection may quickly arise: in the traditional rotogravure process, far more than 10 colours have always been printed on top of each other, for example when printing stamps and banknotes, but also in art printing of the very finest kind.

Sibylle: I studied textile design in Manchester and then the art of painting. I can only say that there are worlds in-between these two areas. And when works by the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber Arp (1889 – 1943) are cited as proof of the fluid transition from textile art to the free art of the abstract, then one can have different opinion about this, because her abstract paintings tend very strongly in the direction of patterns. This can happen quickly if one turns to geometric abstraction as she did. Abstraction comes from moving far away from the representational as an artist. But never completely, a “residual naturalness” must remain in the work, so that the viewer can relate to the work of art. As people we are also natural beings, and only in this way can the familiar relate. If this residual naturalness is missing, pure geometry arises. This belongs to mathematics and is not in itself suitable for artistic statement. That is why the works of geometric abstraction not infrequently appear humanly cold, and the dispute about whether they can be works of art has not been settled to this day.

Another example demonstrated in the show: if a goldsmith thinks she can adorn a chain necklace, using individual gold plates each with a letter of a poem stamped on them, to elevate the chain to the status of a work of art, it is at best a matter of gold plates refined by letters. Nothing more, because the world view of art does not adhere to the supple chain.

Martin: In the machine and tool the human being is only present with his technical intelligence. In the creation of art, however, he/she is present as a whole person.

Thus the work of art is interwoven with the personality of the art-maker, and where the sphere of the spiritual personality of man is not lived, art is not possible.

To summarise: if man with his technical intelligence does what is useful, then as a spiritual person he does what is essential.

Let us end our criticism of this SRF programme, which we admit has a certain entertainment value, with a quote from philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) who delved into the essence of art in his work: “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

“Great art gives us eyes for something we could not see before. Small art only changes the form of what already exists.”

Sibylle: But again, is “art and crafts” in this context a proper term or not?

Martin: More correct would be: “the craft of art”. Craft is a colloquialism that is not correct. But even the gods fight in vain against colloquial phrases.