Sunday, April 17, 2011

Day 42

In some of my earlier comments about Art and Craft I think I may not have gotten my idea across all that well.  I didn't in any way intend to set the two ideas in opposition.  I don't think 'craft' is antithetical to art; I think that Art, as I'm defining it here, consists of those works that manifest a high degree of craftsmanship AS WELL AS a second quality, something harder to name.  Call it 'soul' maybe.  Or, mojo.  

All cultural productions that succeed to any degree can probably be understood in terms of these two qualities.  None are ALL soul, or ALL craft, but one may overwhelm the other to such a degree that the work seems, essentially, monolithic.  So, for example, if I were going to list cultural productions that seemed to me to be 'mostly soul' (and very little craft) I'd say.... punk rock.  Down By Law.  A lot of movies of the French New Wave.  Everything I've seen by John Cassavetes.  The paintings of le doanier Rousseau.  The Neil Young one-note solo in "Cinnamon Girl" would go here, too.  The point in all these productions, their core quality is...expressiveness, inspiration, intuition, 'mojo.'  The emotion is the key thing; and the emotion's so strong and intense that worrying about rules of order, or constructing a pleasurable edifice for the listener/viewer, is seen as insignificant, even oppressive.  Think of how the Sex Pistols conceived of the rock music that had gone before them.  Being unable to play their instruments beyond basic proficiency was a deliberate rebuke to what they perceived as its deadening ossification.  Anarchy, rule-breaking (or at least, rule-ignoring) is a key component of 'mojo.'

But mojo alone is not enough to make great art.  At its worst, it leads to self-indulgent adolescent junk.  The poetry that we most of us write in high school has this quality.  It's strongly felt, it's got soul, but it's still usually fairly painful to read.  ( Oscar Wilde: "All bad art is sincere.")   'Mojo' is narcissistic; it's not about the viewer or the listener.  It is about the artist.  It's about his (or her) desires, his or her emotions, his or her needs.  And though fulfilling those needs is not an insignificant part of the reason art gets made, it shouldn't be the whole reason.  The viewer has needs too.

Craft--the second circle in my Venn diagram--involves meeting the needs, or at least the expectations, of an audience.  It means creating coherent perceptible orders within the work.  It means establishing connections, obeying conventions of form.  If a gun is introduced in the first act, it will be shot by the end.  If the first act involves two women in a shack in East Texas arguing about what the town's new minister will look like, the second act should not feature the entrance of Batman and The Green Lantern.  (Or if it does, it should do so in a meaningful way).  We should feel a guiding intelligence behind our experience.  We should feel like our needs--for order, for connection, for sensual enjoyment--are being attended to.

Neither craft nor 'soul' submit to a clean definition.  It's like obscenity I guess: I can say when I see it, but that's it.  I can say that I think 2112 by Rush is finely crafted, but mostly devoid of soul.   And I can say that The Brothers Karamazov, while undoubtedly deeply soulful and inspired, feels to me to be too unfocused, too lacking in basic elements of craft, to qualify as high art.  (Though I should qualify that by saying that I haven't read it in years, and may well need to reexamine it.  So maybe substitute Karamazov for Notes From The Underground.)  But, still, the terms remain somewhat unsatisfactory.  They can't be clinically, objectively tied-down.  Still, they're what I have, and what I use.  They may help me to think about the art I care the most about, and they help give me ways to understand why certain artists or...makers of cultural productions ultimately seem, to me, to fall short.

Art, then, is the part of the Venn diagram where Craft and Mojo intersect.  At least, that's how I think about it, at this point in my life.


Dezmond said...

But if art and craft meet somewhere in the middle of your Venn Diagram, what about the stuff that is often called "art," but is considered art in part because it does boldly break the rules of the medium, as opposed to using them skillfully (+ soul)?

ANCIANT said...

Well you'd have to give me an example. And I should have said that just because my 'art' is in the middle of the Venn diagram, where the two circles intersect, doesn't mean 'art' has to be equally craft and soul. The Stones, e.g, are more soul and the Beetles are more craft, but the Stones have craft and the Beetles soul. And even a lot of the loosest most ragged punk music still uses basic song structures and thus hews in its way to the conventions of songwriting craft.

But, basically, you can have a lot of one and a little of other. That's the gist.