A few days ago, the big internet thing was, of all things, a restaurant review. The restaurant being reviewed was a Michelin-starred affair in southern Italy, represented by the authors as being the kind of place you go to not so much to eat as to feel as if you a special for eating there. They put it this way:
Y'know, I added your substack impulsively- I *think* because I liked your comments on DSL- in a "well, why not" spirit. Good to have backup stuff to read, in case I'm bored. Having it in my inbox means I know where to look for it. But it's become one of my favorite things to see there- I just checked my mails, saw I had things from like four substacks, and noticed I was significantly more excited about this one than the others. Just wanted to say well-done!
I think there might be a missing third archetype. What art was.
Craftsmen make an object for the sake of the user.
"Artists" make art for to express themselves.
But when I think of enduring art, I don't think of pieces that seem to have been made merely to fit the whims of a patron nor the artist. Rather, a piece that attempts to express an objective beauty or truth. Art for God, art for art. Never mind the boundaries nor the utility, but what is capital-G Good? Having lost a belief in objectivity, artists mistake being true to themselves (whatever that means) for being Truth.
In the instance of the restaurant, I think real art needs to consider the telos of it. Some slime in a plaster mold is hardly food. A meal can aspire to be more than a workman like plate of pleasant gruel, but conversely doesn't eschew pleasing the eater with a satisfying meal--you aren't then elevating your dish to art, you are losing sight of what you are there to do.
Very good essay. I have had this sort of conversation so many times in a number of contexts, and I keep coming back to the line from Calvin and Hobbes "The problem with being avant-garde is knowing who's is putting on who."
The reviewer expected food, made by a chef, that would do the things food does well: have interesting qualities, take care of hunger, etc. The chef thinks he is innovating cuisine, and if his customers don't like it, it is because they don't get it. Both are wrong. The reviewer for the reasons discussed, but the chef because he is not a chef innovating food for a living. His actual paying audience are the sort of people who want to show other people how elite they are. The type who want to be seen to be at a fancy place, a place so fancy regular people don't understand it. They don't care if they enjoy the food, they merely want to appear to be able to appreciate what lesser folk cannot, and simultaneously not be able to enjoy what the lesser folk do. The food isn't the point; it might as well not even be there.
That is the grift of avant-garde, both the emperor and the peasants have no clothes, but claiming to see beautiful clothing is a sign of being elite. Any pleb can recognize that they are naked.
The risk comes from when one side, the "artist" or the "connoisseur" stops telling the lie, leaving the other party to flounder around, suddenly cast out of the elite and into the plebs who will never accept them.
I think that describes a lot of modern culture, when you get down to it.
> whether we are living our lives in pursuit of ourselves, an abstract, or others
Are you offering 3 options in this statement, or 2: "ourselves - an abstract", and "others"?
the art-craft distinction as only in terms of Avant Garde (innovation) vs conforming to standards (utility), whilst at the same time being of the same class level, in uniquely odd. almost as if "art" is a bit of socially dysfunctional madness incarnate? https://archive.ph/QpDW4 https://kirkegaard.substack.com/p/the-verbal-tilt-model
A counter-theory towards this kind of "same average ability, but bias between language vs science", is that the distinction between high art and "porn" (as in "insight porn" and "hustle porn") is a bit blurred, while expert craft's elevation to an art form in-and-of-itself is different from content-esque forms of mass referential media. More references noted here: https://bradnbutter.substack.com/p/porn-martyrs-cyborgs-part-2
Seductive art is packed with gestalt (e.g. mashing words together like an AI), but expert craft is semantically coherent and takes a genius mind to do it. A simple litmus test is to ask "Could Buzzfeed or Five Minute Craft replicate this?" https://thephilosophersmeme.com/2018/03/27/memes-jokes-and-visual-puns/
With software engineering, the most annoying purists are the craftsmen, and the other side is "move fast break things" pragmatists. Which is an entirely different conversation, kinda reminiscent of the explorations of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
There is a quote from Terry Pratchett: "It was a work of art. It was better than that. It was a work of craft"
I think this captures a lot of this - most of the great works of art were craftsman who had perfected their craft, through repetition, practice, focus etc. Shakespeare, Michelangelo - craftsmen who made a living through their craft
Pratchett himself was a craftsman - the books he wrote were not art, he was a craftsman refining his technique. But they became better than any books written to be art (literary novels etc).
Beautifully written. I've mulled over the distinction between art and craftsmanship many times.
I work in government and at a cursory glance, it is completely justifiable to say that there is very little 'art' involved in the mind-numbing tedium of policy research and strategy (my area of work). But every so often I see my work as an 'artform' primarily due to the amount of implicit obstacles/hurdles/red-tape one has to navigate to arrive at a particular solution to a problem. Often the 'solution' doesn't necessarily address the problem directly but it instigates/communicates a particular mindset that is beneficial towards solving that problem in the long-run.
I find these granular 'connections' and 'disconnections' to be 'art' in the sense that it demands a specific interpretation of bureaucracy and government work that isn't necessarily plastered over the brochures/media articles people read.
I think you might have gone off the rails a bit toward the second half of the article, but your first half is solid.
Artists create art; craftsmen create useful objects. The purpose of art is to be admired and/or talked about. The purpose of useful objects is to fulfill some other function, and to do so efficiently. For example, a beautiful decorative 3d-printed vase made out of fractal lace is art; a regular jug that can reliably hold water is craft. This does not mean that the jug has to be ugly, or completely unadorned, or mass-produced; it could be a custom piece carved out of a single piece of jade by a master jadesmith up on a mountain in Japan somewhere -- but it *must* be watertight, weigh a reasonable amount, withstand being picked up by the handle, and so on. As long as there are restrictions in play other than the creators' own imagination, the object is craft, not art.
Most of the time, I come at these sorts of debates from the artist's side, so I think I can see both sides of this issue. I totally understand the craftsman's desire to create in the service of others, but I can also see the artist's point about stretching the boundaries. Quite often, the avant-garde artist is working in the service of other artists, defining and exploring the possibilities of their chosen medium - think Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" but set in the artist's studio instead of the research scientist's laboratory. When the public gets to see the results, confusion often happens - but a lot of cutting-edge science can also be confusing.
In architecture, the debate centers around the proponents of "traditional", old-fashioned decoration (ornate columns, intricate stonework) who despise the new, avant-garde buildings with curtain walls and fanciful shapes. But isn't this just a difference in styles of craftsmanship, with different technics? Detailed stonework was the cutting edge of craftsmanship in the 1800s, and now the cutting edge is huge expanses of plate glass and carefully rolled steel shapes.
Of course, the whole emperor's-new-clothes, posturing-and-posing side of the current art scene just complicates the issue, and you brought out that complicatedness very well in this essay.
So I follow as far as the Artist/Craftsman distinction, and that's a useful way to think about work. Where you've lost me is where you conclude that all of life can be summed up as either about serving others or hurting others.
>You have the choice between living a life that leaves people satisfied in the way a good meal does, or one that leaves them feeling like they licked citrus foam out of a Lovecraft mouth to fulfill your wants at the expense of their own.
Honestly, this idea that all of our lives should be dedicated to serving others just seems like moralism. "Leaving others satisfied" is a really bizarre way of describing a successful life. My satisfaction doesn't matter in MY life? Sure, my *work* hopefully does some good for others, that's why I get paid by those others, but why in the world would I make basic life choices for other people, who are only tangentially, if at all, affected by my choices? And note that you conflate a person who is pursuing their wants with a person who is pursuing their wants at the expense of others—not the same thing.
This reasoning probably only makes sense for parents—and even for parents, it only applies at a quite young age. As your kids age, your decisions will become less and less important to them, and you're going to have to start detaching from them and letting them detach from you. If you enjoy playing altruist, enjoy it while it lasts, because by their 20s if not earlier, your kids won't give a damn how you live your life.
I'm going to betray my farm boy roots and put on my cultural-elite pretentious hat.
Anyone who goes to the MOMA and complains that the horses don't look like horses is either an idiot, or purposefully trying to stir up attention. The same applies for a restaurant like Bros. Unless they were blindly making reservations at a random restaurant, it should have been extremely clear what they were in for. They were given the exact experience that was advertised, which they then asked and paid for. This doesn't mean the experience was good, but it is disingenuous to pretend to be shocked and confused. When someone advertises that they don't think tables have 4 legs or should be flat, you don't get to complain when the table they give you is an egg.
Anyways, your analysis is great. I just can't stand the faux outrage about this type of stuff.