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Art, Craft & Science

by Brian R. Price

AKA SCA Brion Thornbird ap Rhys, Earl and Knight, OL
September 11, 1996

There has long been a debate within the SCA concerning whether ‘armouring’ can rightly be considered an ‘art’ or a ‘science.’ For me, the distinction between art and science is immaterial–arts and crafts are already distinct from medieval sciences. The important distinction lies between ‘art’ and ‘craft.’

No one would confuse biochemistry for art, except in the most philosophical sense, where any expression of high quality technique is reverently called ‘art.’ Certainly, there is a nearly artistic quality in the intuitive leaps needed by scientists, technicians, and engineers when they create technically and perhaps aestically pleasing structures (often only evident to fellow specialists). And yet, You will find books entitled the ‘Art of Programming’ and ‘The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ But truly, these are not arts, they are fine feats of technical precision, high elegant ones, but they are not arts because they lack the key ingredient–an effort to communicate a message.

This is how I define an art; an art, in any medium, attempts to convey a message to an audience. Not just ‘art for art’s sake,’ but a real message about something that people can relate to. Modern artists may say that this position is parochial, ‘vieux jeu’, or slurring tag it with ‘classical,’ but I think the strength of a piece of art is directly proportional to the number of people who are able to receive and appreciate its message.

Craft, by contrast, is the skilled use of technique to create an object, generally by hand means, hence the term ‘craftsmanship.’ If I set out, as an armourer, to create a helmet, in most cases I will be using the techniques I have learned to create a good quality, aethetically pleasing piece of equipment. I am executing a craft here, nothing more, no matter how pleasant the final helmet appears. If I am an illuminator, working to create a scroll for someone, I also use the techniques I have learned and refined, matching them with an equally important (and wholly separate) refinement of the eye, I am still a craftsman, not an artist.

In each case, the elevation of a craft to an art depends on a message being included in the work and communicated. If I was working on a helmet, and I intend that the helmet give an impression of quiet confidence, reminding the viewer that there is indeed a human being encased in this steel carapace, then I am attempting to use my technique not for craft, but for art. My craftsmanship, the use of technique, will in part determine how effective I am at communicating my intended (or accidental) message. If my work is clumsy, then the message is indistinct and hard to decipher, if anyone can indeed see it. If I am successful, even to a degree, than some people will be able to read the message captured in the lines and finishes of the fledgling piece of art.

There is an important distinction between intended and accidental messages. Many artists do not necessarily set out to consciously weave a message into their artworks. Some do. Many painters, sculptors, and performance artists can talk in hushed tones about the philosophical underpinnings of their work, of the natural and man-made forces coursing through the work, beating as if they were hearts. Sometimes they even speak directly of intended message, often political ones, that they want to convey.

There is no requirement that great art have an ‘intended’ message. I think great art is great, however, because a large number of people can see or experience the piece and see or feel similar things in it. It is this outcome of the art, this common communication, that I use as a barometer to determine whether an art is great or not. Personally, I have little use for the art that speaks only to a ‘select’ few, a cadre of experts. This art may indeed be powerful and cleverly wrought, but it does not succeed, in my mind, in conveying a more general message, so in the long term will gradually ebb from the memory of the world. Great art lasts the test of time; I think that this communication is why it survives.

From this high platitude, is craft then inferior to art? No, it is merely different, not inferior. Craftsmanship can and should be celebrated for its own sake, because in the development of craftsmanship there is much refinement to the human spirit that takes place; focus, concentration, learning to ‘see,’ (what I call elsewhere refinement of the eye). All of these things serve to enhance a person’s character and give them a broader view of the world, even if they concentrate on a very small world of their own devising. Further, there is no need for every object to be an objet d’art. A finely wrought stool need not convey any message, it just has to work. If it is well constructed, sturdy, and pleasing to the eye, so much the better–it is then a far better stool. A helmet need not make a statement on the knight’s approach to war or tourney to be an excellent piece–so most helmets are not art objects.

What about performance ‘art?’ Likewise, a performance is raised to the level of ‘art’ only if there is a clear message or messages conveyed. Most such instances, such as in dance and music, are not really arts but are good performances, technical iterations. If there is a tangible bit of ‘soul’ in the performance, such that you can read something of the artist and their beliefs in the music, dance, or in the execution of a role, then you have real art. Does that denigrate technical performance? No, I don’t think it does. Not every musician has that innate ability to reach out and ‘touch’ their audience, despite the fact that most believe they do. However, that doesn’t make the performances by these same gentles less valuable, they are simply less enduring than their artistic counterparts because their strength is not great enough to sustain their lives as far.

So now what of sciences? In an SCA context, sciences should be restricted to the ‘medieval’ sciences–astronomy, astrology, perhaps engineering, and the like. The question as to whether these are ‘laurel’ activities I think is academic–arts, crafts and sciences should all be candidates for a laurel, provided that they meet the established criterion.

There is nothing wrong with a finely crafted object or a simple performance that does not aspire to become art. I do believe that the definition of art has been extended far beyond being useful; it is my hope that these words might inspire thought in others, that they might reach their own conclusions concerning art, craft and science.