What is ‘art’? Though the question sounds simple enough, the word art has come to be applied indiscriminately to so many forms of human activity, from the loftiest of human endeavors to competence in hair-dressing or chess, that no Single definition can really cover the scope of the term. Even if we restrict the arts to their more natural province, viz. music, literature, drama, painting, sculpture, architecture, and the handicrafts are not much better off. Writers on art and aesthetics, have so far failed to find any definite answer to this question.
Therefore, without any established definition of art to guide us, nor any new one to propound, let us turn from abstractions to consider how works of art come Into being. As is commonly acknowledged, the creative impulse is the primary force in all the arts. ‘The musician is inspired to create things that are good to hear; the writer is inspired to create things that are good to read. The painter, the sculptor, and the craftsman are inspired to create things that are good to see. It is the thrill of creation, the excitement of making something new, which starts each of them upon his labor and sustains him through it.
As his creation comes to life, the artist experiences the pleasure of supreme power. He is the monarch, the god of his own little world. ‘I wish to feel like a Prince when I paint’, said one of the great Japanese masters, and this wish imbues the subconscious of every genuine artist.
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The artist and his audience
If the exhilarating effects of his creation were confined to the artist himself, might regard art as a somewhat selfish amusement, a sort of aesthetic and intellectual addiction, which, while giving pleasure to those who practice it, is of no use to their fellow beings. However, the artist’s creation has a life of its own, a life that lasts long after its creator is dead and forgotten. In that vital element, his spirit lives on, immortal, reaching out to all who come into contact with it.
So, even after ten or twelve thousand years, the carvings and rock paintings of the Palaeolithic man still convey to us something of the ‘lives of these forerunners of our race. What is creation? It is the making of a new life. If what is made is not new, it is mere imitation Containing no element of novelty to stimulate attention. If it is not fully alive, it can transmit only a feeble, anemic message to others. For, the thrill of the artist’s creative act must of necessity be trans- nutted to his audience as a sort of reflection from the image he has created.
Throughout our known history, there is evidence of men having created symbols and forms to express their ideas and feelings. These creations enable us to understand and realize the meanings given by men to different aspects of their lives. They epitomize the human creative spirit; conversely, men have been creative to the extent that they have been able to Invent such forms. It is recognized that many art forms stem from the visual sense.
These visual expressions possess a nearly universal significance, transversing spoken language and surmounting political and social boundaries. The visual in this sense has become the ‘Esperanto’ language—discourse with the felt and the visible. We can understand the nature of art both through the ‘making’ of art and by studying the art created in the past and the present. Art may be interpreted to include the many forms designed by man—not only painting, sculpture, and graphics—but also objects designed for common use, architecture, etc.
Fine Arts, Applied Arts, and Crafts
According to Herbert Read, an eminent art historian:
“The actual phrases, ‘Fine Art’ and ‘Applied Art’ may be largely the creation of the machine age, but the underlying distinction is a product of the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, the so-called Fine Arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry) were not explicitly named, nor distinctly recognized, as a separate class; even in classical Greece, there was only one-word ‘techne’, for both kinds of art… The use of the term ‘Fine Arts’ is closely bound up with the history of academics of art, which is . usually academics of ‘Fine Art’.
The first use of the phrase in English recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1767. The Royal Academy in England was founded in 1768. It was, of course, preceded by similar academies abroad—at Vienna and Bologna… and all of these academies had their prototype in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in Paris in 1648… Actually the Paris Academy represents the public recognition of a practice that had been slowly growing during the previous two centuries. The practice was an inevitable accomplishment of the general development of humanism.”
In the West, largely as a by-product of the Renaissance, the field of art had many subdivisions. Whereas the fine arts included painting, architecture, and sculpture for public or private delight, the terms minor arts defined the work of goldsmiths, illuminators, ivory carvers and other crafts produced by craftsmen or skilled workers, and included wood carvings, stone carvings, ironwork, and so on. Commercial art referred to designs and decorations produced to promote commerce and was, until recently, considered low in the scale of values.
It is remarkable to think that in the old world, whether in the Orient or the West, there was no demarcation between the artist and the craftsman. In ancient India he was known as shilpin—a term which covered his activities as a painter, builder, image-maker, potter, carver and so on. Shilpa embraced the full range of creative activity—ritual, skill, craft, and creative imagination. The shilpin was assigned an organic role within the society through membership in a group. That is to say, he was a member of an artisan caste or a guild which was an integral part of the social order and in which he enjoyed an honorable status. The shilpin infused order into his experience through his material and the forms he fashioned from it with his tools.
Phrases like creative crafts and fine crafts are gaining currency all over the world to express a developing consciousness for accepting creative craft activity of every kind as art. The gap between the artist and the craftsman is fast disappearing as the artist no longer fights shy of being called a craftsman.
The term artist-craftsman’ was almost non-existent till about the 1930s by which time the gap between art and craft, the functional and the non- functional, continuing since the Renaissance, persisted. This divide which became more apparent in the wake of the Industrial Revolution In Europe blurred only towards the turn of the century. What happened in Europe to achieve the synthesis In craft designing, between the pure physical function and the aesthetic or spiritual function of a created object, was the realization of the Integral quality of art and craft.
A craft article has a certain psychological or spiritual function too, that of satisfying the innate craving of man for beauty in its myriad forms, a fact well-known to our ancient artists or shilpin. The awareness that this instinct in man owed much to significant movements that arose towards craft revivals in Europe, such as the Morris Movement in the second half of the nineteenth century in England led by William Morris—a poet, book designer, illuminator and wood engraver. Morris wanted to revive old craftsmanship, wherein a created object would be worthy of the artist’s imagination, and he rejected the machine as a means of production.
Later, a more significant movement appeared in Germany known as Das Bauhaus led by Walter Gropius (1919) and his band of highly gifted painters, sculptors, architects, designers, and craftsmen. They, however, did not reject the machine and mass production but aimed at discovering the basis of a new design concept relevant to the realities of the changed means of production.
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The Bauhaus school aimed to create a harmony of all the visual arts, that is to say, a common code of aesthetics was applied to all forms of art, such as building, sculpture, painting, furniture, and metal-ware. It emphasized the creation of objects in harmony with the environment. The contemporary interest in crafts throughout the world, particularly in America, is largely a result of the influence of the ideas of this movement.
Lately, in India also an Interest has grown in different craft methods and materials and their use as tools of creative expression. In the course of the last three decades, small groups of artist-craftsman have emerged who are devoted to the making of genuine craft objects in various media, such as clay, stone, wood, metal (including enamel on copper), hand-woven and knotted fibers and glass (including fiberglass). They are creating relevant and original designs and expressive motifs and symbols. These art activities do strengthen the belief that a craftsman is an originator of ideas.
The dictionary defines art as:
Human creative skill or its application; a branch of creative activity concerned with the production of imitative and imaginative designs and expressions of ideas, especially in painting; products of this activity; any skill especially contrasted with scientific technique or principle; craft or activity requiring imaginative skill.
It further defines an object as a thing placed before the eyes or presented to sensation; material thing; thing to which action or feeling is directed; thing thought of or perceived as correlative to the thinking mind or subject, and purpose. Again according to the dictionary handicraft is a trade or art that requires skill with the hands. The point, however, is that the terms object-making and handcrafting do not express fully the physical and psychological involvement of man in the act of expression.
Modern-day creative works of painters and sculptors are indeed baffling as these do not fit into established categories of works of art, and labeling them has become next to impossible. Artists now mix different media In a single work— watercolors, graphic techniques, acrylics or oil paints, not to mention nails, mirrors and beads. Sculptors paint surfaces and painters shape their canvases Into structures that protrude in the three-dimensional space. To add to these are woven forms, abstract stitcheries, and murals in enamel, ceramics, and fiberglass. Painting and sculpture are handicrafts by dictionary definition, but only in the conventional sense can one describe either as a handicraft.