There’s a sensible article about Craft and Art by Theodora Goss on the SFWA website. Goss, an experienced creative writing teacher, has a somewhat different angle on it than I do, but we see both pretty much the same way. My way of saying it: Craft makes art possible. Art gives craft life. But in the story I’m working on now, which happens to be partly about craft (in knitting) and art (ditto) there’s something more I believe is important.
In history, craft guilds often kept secrets, especially from outsiders. Their secret knowledge–how to get a brilliant red in wool, how to join thin pieces of wood to make a box stronger, how to make paper–had value–it ensured their control of a body of knowledge, and hence the ability to control the profit from that knowledge. Individuals might also keep their secrets–painters had individual, sometimes secretly held ways of mixing particular pigments, using varnishes, etc. Past the age of guilds, both individuals and corporations thrived by holding secrets close, preventing others from copying the work that made their profit. And all those secrets hidden…are things that can be learned by copying, by spying, or–if the inventer chooses–can be taught directly to someone else. In other words, all those secrets belong in the realm of craft, not art. Craft is both knowledge and skill…but knowledge is the deepest root of it.
Goss says art cannot be taught, only craft. I think she’s right. Art is part of the individual…if someone with the craft extends the work to art, then that extension comes from something the individual puts into it. What is that “something?” Now we’re on shaky ground, one foot on theology and one foot on psychology. Because it’s something mental/spiritual/psychological in the individual that results in art. It’s not craft or lack of it. It’s not a profit motive or lack of it…artists and writers have produced brilliant work–unquestionably art–for money (and lots of it.) It’s in the individual.
Goss comes close, I think, in this sentence: “Both Woolf and Orwell make stylistic choices, write the way they write, because of what they’re focusing on, because of their convictions about reality.” Narrowing that down, I would say that the stylistic choices are not what distinguishes art from the craft behind it: many people can learn to word-wrangle very well. The art is elsewhere: it arises because “their convictions about reality” suffuse their writing. And here we go farther into the shaky bog, hoping not to sink. Because every writer has convictions about reality, and those convictions do affect the writing. Yet not all writers produce art as well as craft.
We can start by admitting that imperfect craft–shoddy workmanship–cannot produce art. (Or, “not good art” if you’re feeling generous. ) It’s easy to tell why some paintings/sculptures/musical works/written works do not achieve the status of art…they lack too much craft.
What about the others, the competent-in-craft writers whose books may be enjoyable on a dull afternoon, but, in the long run, migrate to the shelves you don’t reach often, and are finally discarded for lack of storage space? You can re-read them a few times without wincing. There’s nothing specifically wrong with them. But they don’t grab your mind and heart and bring you back again and again.
You don’t, in other words, connect…with what? The book? Yes. The characters? Yes. And behind the book and the characters, the writer. Aha! Yes…the writer has managed to pour enough of the writer’s own heart (not just mind) and passion (not just thoughts, but feelings) about the characters, the place, the events being written, into the book that you are emotionally moved, not just once, but repeatedly.
The writer is not just demonstrating the techniques of good writing–as a craftsperson always does–but as an artist shares a vision, using every technique of craft to help you, the reader, participate in that vision. The story comes alive in your mind, and you become a co-creator as read, your entire brain working to build up the vision the writer had first, and gave you the clues to generate.
As readers, we do that with any text, to some extent: “He bit into the apple.” Those who have bitten into an apple will respond by imagining the feel, the amount of resistance to his teeth, the slight graininess of the flesh, the apple being either juicy or mushy. We interpret in the light of our own experience; we “see” and “hear” at lease some of what’s written. The better the craft of writing, the more vividly meaning is conveyed, the easier it is to understand. But many texts, in fiction as well as nonfiction, offer a shallow experience–refreshing as wading in a cool stream on a hot day, yet nothing like swimming in the ocean. The surface, the shallow depth, is well-conveyed–concrete details, pleasantly varied prose.
Meanwhile, the writer remains concealed. Anyone with sufficient craft can write “He bit into the apple.” Anyone can write “The steak sizzled.” Anyone with sufficient craft can write entire, perfectly correct, competent, and interesting paragraph after paragraph about anything without revealing anything much about the writer.
Art requires revealing the artist’s unique perspective…leaving the far safer concealment of the craftsman for the risks of exposure. Saying not what is expected, known, taught as part of the craft, but what comes from the artist’s own deepest beliefs and longings. It cannot be taught, because it’s not a technique or a trick or a method. It’s the individual taking the risk of sharing the most dangerous thing–the truth of the artist’s self–with those the artist does not know–may never know–and who may reject everything that artist is. All a teacher can do is provide a space, permission, for a student whose craft has developed to go beyond craft alone.
In music, the good teachers–like our choir director–tell students “Don’t just sing/play the notes. Express the music. ” For someone still struggling with the craft, this is intimidating…if you have no “musical idea” about the music other than “too many notes too fast” and “OMG, there’s a key change–what–?” you cannot express the music. You can, at best, sing the notes. But it isn’t music–it is not the art of music–until you go beyond, into the music itself, feeling it, reacting to it, and then singing (or playing) with everything you know, everything you feel, without protecting yourself, risking whatever may come to sing or play as if you were the music. Strong voice or weak, great skill with an instrument or mediocre skill…it will produce music only if you use all of it, freely, without trying to hide your imperfections.
The same is true, in a different craft, with writing. First comes craft. Then–with the courage to risk–comes whatever art is in you. Fear stifles it. Fear that your art isn’t that big (and it may not be), fear of ridicule or disapproval or actual punishment, fear of failure. And yet…giving the trained talent, the talent with craft behind it, free rein….letting it run wild where it will and devil take the consequences…is the only possible chance you have to go from craft to art. Thinking “This will be my shift from craft to art” doesn’t work (in my experience)…thinking of the music itself, the story itself, putting aside thoughts of its audience to give everything to the art….is what may produce art. (And if not, you’ve got one heckuva piece of excellent craftsmanship. Which is nothing to be ashamed of–in fact, something to be proud of.)
Craft can be taught. Art cannot; it can only be recognized. Craft has “secrets,” techniques and materials that masters of the craft can choose to keep secret or share. Art has no secret…and that is its secret.