Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On Art and Craft

In his essay "Art and Craft", RG Collingwood distinguishes between what is “craft” and that which is “art proper”. He shows this by enumerating some general features of craft, the central characteristic being its distinction between means and end. He then asks if this characteristic may be applied to art proper, if art may be divisible into means and an end. He then states that art cannot be so neatly divided, but proposes that there is something in the structure of art that makes it similar to craft, and it has to do with the nature of emotion.

Collingwood writes that the philosophy of craft concerns itself with the idea of arousing. In craft, the “end” is something preconceived and brought into existence through determinate means, one that arouses a desired emotion in the audience. For Collingwood, the artist has something to do with emotion, but he does not arouse it. Rather, he expresses it. Art is then defined by the expression of emotion, while craft is the arousal of it.

This expression of emotion, according to Collingwood, has its origin in the artist. He knows that he is having an emotion, he feels something, but he doesn’t know yet what it is. It is through the expression of this emotion that he becomes aware of it. This is in contrast to the craftsman, who already knows beforehand what emotion to arouse in the audience. Emotion then for the artist is unique, individual and specific to time and place. The craftsman by contrast, works with general, conceptual and classifiable ways of doing things. The true artist is the opposite of all this – “he does not want a thing of a certain kind, he wants a certain thing.” In craft, everything is repeated. In art, nothing is repeated.

Putting Collingwood’s ideas to the test, this author paid a visit to the National Museum and was intrigued by an exhibit at the Don Vicente Madrigal Gallery. The exhibition is entitled, “Kaban ng Lahi: Archaeological Treasures”, showing mostly burial jars from archaeological sites. One particular display caught this author’s attention. Called the Masuso pots, the display showed two pots -- the first pot having four breasts molded onto it, while the other one having seven breasts. What is unique about these two objects is that their origin is unknown. According to the write-up: “These lovely ceramic objects molded with human breasts have come to be known as the Masuso pots. However, researchers can only guess at their origins and cultural significance... Did they have ritual significance? To what culture and period do they belong? We will never know what these artifacts have to say about ancient Filipinos and their culture – we can only guess!” This statement by the exhibit organizers leads one to wonder how these two objects came to be acquired by the Museum, being apart and unique even from the rest of the exhibition pieces. However, they present an opportunity in discussing Collingwood’s ideas, in particular the issue of authorship, in determining when an object is “craft”, and when it is “art”. There is a problem with Collingwood’s essay, in that he did not limit his discussion to any particular culture or situation. The reader is then inclined to conclude that he was writing about craft and art in general terms.

But what happens when the author of an artwork (or a work of craft) is unknown, as is the case with the Masuso pots? Central to Collingwood’s argument is the intention of the artist. But we do not know if the pots were made in a tradition, with repeatable processes that could be taught from one generation to the next. Neither do we know the purpose of the objects, what their “end” function was in their community. Therefore we can’t merely say that it is craft, based on the qualities that Collingwood presented. Neither can we say immediately that it is art proper, simply because there is no artist around to explain his work.

In Collingwood’s argument, there is little room for the work’s interpreter – the audience merely understands the object or does not. But by simple observation we can derive certain artistic qualities in it, qualities that may have been present in the artist as well, such as refinement (the objects do not have any crude lines – indeed they are smoothly finished), attention to detail and balance (the breasts are of uniform size and evenly spaced) among other things. They are also evocative, relating to the idea of the mother/woman as container or receptacle and as such are very emotional pieces. Whether or not these emotions that the viewer feels through the artwork were the artist’s own, or whether they were meant to be aroused in the community that the artworks came from, no one knows for sure.

The preceding paper was submitted on October 19, 2007 as part of the requirements for Art Studies 190 (Aesthetics) under Prof. Patrick Flores, University of the Philippines, Diliman.

RG Collingwood was a British philosopher and practicing archaeologist best known for his work in aesthetics and the philosophy of history. The National Museum (Museum of the Filipino People) is in Manila, and may be accessed through Taft or P. Burgos St, which is in front of the Intramuros golf course. MFP is within Luneta, along Finance Road, beside the National Art Gallery (former Congress building).

© Jojo Ballo 2007
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