Read Time: 5 minutes
First, I’d like to give a bit of personal background: My father is a retired brick and stone mason who specialized in residential fireplaces and veneer, although he also built small commercial C.M.U. Structures and later began a second career building multi-family properties. His was a very old-school approach to the craft, which both my brothers and I were expected to enter. After high school, college and about 10 years of wandering—equipped with extensive study, travel and internship work in Europe and in the US and a degree in information systems/quantitative analysis and business management—somewhat ironically, I ended up in the masonry trade, but on my own.
After about a decade working for myself, first in masonry, then tile-setting (which was far more in tune with my interests), I realized I wanted to become an architect. Art and design classes, history lectures, studios and work-study were pure enlightenment. However, after two years of studio and self-study tours all over Europe and North Africa I realized that my enthusiasm and focus was going to be better served as an applied artist rather than as an architect. Those two years were the most valuable years of my professional life in terms of my career path.
Before directly addressing the subject of artist, artisan and craftsman, I think it's important to begin this conversation by identifying and pointing out three principal and fundamentally important technological advancements that occurred in the late 19th century that I believe directly influence our thinking about aesthetics:
- Modern building methods from cast iron to formed steel girders and the parallel development of exterior building cladding systems
- The rediscovery of cement
- The discovery and proliferation of photographic techniques
Let's start with building technology: Up until these modern building techniques were developed, structures were principally constructed of wood or stone. The ancient Greeks and Romans took things to a logical extreme with arches and domes and even incorporated an early, natural form of cement—pozzolano—into their building (which was then lost to humanity for centuries), but without the structural aspect that steel affords, there were limitations to what could be done physically.
In our modern era, we witnessed the ignominious demise of Beaux Arts and Neoclassical aesthetic ideals that were worshiped and pursued for centuries, especially in the ornamentation and adornment of buildings in modern American architecture. It would seem to me that much of the change had to do with new materials and the desire—nay, compulsion—to ecstatically explore and experiment with the heretofore unknown and impossible creative possibilities these two constriction innovations allowed. Structural steel and concrete provided a new canvas, a new unexplored universe of potential that no longer required masonry bases. The amazing tapestry of the built environment we experience and see around us is barely 100 years old.
Certainly, in the case of ornament, it would not be an exaggeration to describe the new design canon aesthetic as generally anti-ornamentation. This ban—in effect—extinguished a long, rich tradition of stone carving families and practitioners. (In my case, I am completely self-taught and continue to make great efforts to get in proximity of anyone with talent just to watch techniques or visit extant monuments or structures.)
The third important technology was the discovery and proliferation of photographic techniques. In terms of art, this one discovery is likely the single most important change agent, possibly more important even than the computer. In essence, the camera put fine portraiture artists and graphic artists out of business—or at least fundamentally removed their value in the marketplace of their time. I think that for thousands of years those gifted with the ability to render realistic depictions of what we see around us got used to the idea of having a livelihood and higher economic status that was effectively nullified on the spot.
How in the world does one compete with something that ubiquitous, perfect and now readily available to any one of the masses? It would seem to me that photography forced the artistic and design community to get creative and fight back. Once that happened, there was a free-for-all to become relevant, rules were shrugged off, and art became something different and more loosely defined. Much of modern art moved away from craftsmanship and realism and morphed violently into an ideological or intellectually-based paradigm.
I think we live in a time of confusion about what or who makes something that is “art” in the greater sense. In my view, it is evident in the quality and beauty of the work, subjective as that can be or even unrecognized at or in the creator's own time. It is nearly undefinable, and yet we recognize it when we see it; the composition is compelling.
It was in studying Art History and in visiting the museums and buildings, particularly in Italy—in order to observe the spaces and sculptural works first hand—that I realized something for myself about the old masters: They were engineers, architects, painters, sculptors and artisans obsessed with creating an idealized beauty. It was their realization of the ideal that we now view as art.
Aesthetics in art, design or architecture begins to separate the standard maker from craftsman into artisan. We can all recognize quality craftsmanship or the work of an artisan in the built environment, but I think the transition from craftsman to artisan is difficult to properly articulate. I believe fundamentally, craftsmanship is far more about competence in construction and meeting the basic utility of the task. Those with desire, passion, a professional approach and aptitude generally elevate to the level of artisan and usually are recognized as such.
The transition from artisan to artist is far more complex and—in my opinion—requires more than a self-declaration. There is a certain aesthetic sensibility that must exist in the individual and a depth of understanding of the medium and how and where it can be pushed to become something unique or special. There needs to be a quality or breath of life that is somehow imbued into the work—and, to become a true "artist" it seems there is a need for one's work to be evaluated by a qualified third party.
I know in my case, I am more comfortable expressing my work as an artisan and craftsman and would rather earn the right to claim "artist.”