Oh, I Just Threw Something Together

Decorative swords

Deadly art

The following three things have something important in common: haiku poetry, ballroom dancing, and the carved figures on the front of old ships. Of course I don’t have to tell a sophisticated person like you what they share, but other people might not know. These are all forms of art.

Given the stupendous possible variety in artistic expression (let’s go ahead and throw in painting wall murals, weaving lace, performing rap lyrics, and raking sand in a Japanese garden), we might feel provoked—even though we really do know better—to quietly query ourselves “What is this art thing?”

In a very basic way, whatever a person’s motivation might be, art consists in shaping the physical world. Right? You have to use something to make art, even if it’s just using the sounds you can make or the motion of your own body. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that almost every object human beings have ever touched has been turned into a form of art by someone. Even swords, which are basically long pieces of sharp metal used to kill someone, have been made into art.

If we talk about acquiring skill in art, what can “skill” mean amid such inconceivable variety? I would describe skill in art as having increasing control over the medium, over that part of the world the artist is using. Heightened skill then leads to an increasing ability (1) to make the medium come closer to what exists in the artist’s imagination, (2) to work the medium in more subtle ways, and (3) to express the art with greater consistency.

Suppose, however, an artist does not have great skill, whatever the reason (lack of talent, or lack of opportunity to perfect the talent, or just lack of desire to perfect the talent). Is it possible for both the artist and the audience to be satisfied by art that shows little skill?

I think it is possible. The audience might have an emotional connection to the artist. One of my colleagues at work, for instance, has filled his office with drawings done by his young children. As a very different example, the audience might take pleasure from something unexpected and different. The painter Grandma Moses painted very popular images of old-fashioned rural life in a simplified style, or consider the fame and acclaim gained by Jackson Pollock, who would fling paint onto canvases—I mean seriously, people, he just flung paint.

In general, however, we admire those artists who work hard to learn to control their medium and have more control over the effects, even if we also like people whose art seems less controlled and polished (like early Joe Cocker).

If we consider artistic skill in writing, we could begin with basic control of the medium: (1) knowing the mechanics of written language, in particular spelling and punctuation, and (2) having a strong command over the grammar of the standard version of the language. But as I used to tell my students, knowing the mechanics of writings brings you up to zero. Then you can begin to get people to listen to what you have to say.

The true craft of fiction writing requires skills that become hard to describe, such as having a sense of dramatic flow in a story, knowing how to transition in a satisfying way between parts, or knowing how to make a character seem real.

I’m a huge admirer of craft in art, every kind of art. Craft alone is not enough, but for me, neither is raw, undeveloped talent enough. Being too talented, in fact, might make the artist lazy, and I’m not interested in lazy artists. When talent, whatever that is, comes together with a willingness to work and learn the craft, then amazing things can happen, like Artemesia Gentileschi, Fred Astaire, or Alexander Pushkin.

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