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4:08 pm | 24 June 2004 | the craft of war


Oh my GAWWWD. So I was riffling through the recycle bin and I scored a stack of unread newspapers*. After cracking a thing (container-esque plastic-wrappy-cube) of fudge that my dad had mailed me, I pored (read: glanced semi-indifferently) over an article about an exhibit of modern post-conceptual Mexican art that's somewhere in Los Angeles. Why, you ask, don't I remember where the hell the exhibit is, despite my having every intention of going to check it out ASAP? BECAUSE I was thunderstruck by the most bitchin' sculpture of all time, entitled Ancient vs. Modern (Mastodon with yellow cupcakes).

I wanted to think more about why I loved it so. So, I wrote a little thing. It is about Art vs. Craft. It is loose and random, just like me. But I think it can pertain to lots of things--not just mouthwatering post-conceptual sculpture, but, say, poetry, for example. That sentence has a lot of commas. So anyway I invite you to check out the essay. It is long so get ready.

There's this idea that craft is somehow less valuable or respectable than art, which is a wagonload of horsie hooey. Think about Clare Crespo, who knits sushi-rolls out of yarn that look totally real and are really fun! (Careful, though, as her floridly bright website is freaky and eyeball-stabbing.) Think about Liza Lou, who uses millions of glass beads to recreate domestic items and situations that open a dialogue about women and the home. And look at über-intense German artist Kiki Smith, who has done a lot of great stuff but whose number #1 most touching work is, to me, the dead birds she pinned to the wall--after having crocheted tiny pastel sweaters, jackets, and scarves for them--and I am super mad that I can't find a picture for it, because you need to see how important and beautiful it is. It is this amazing meditation on death and caring and comfort and our loved ones and warmth and closeness and dissociation. And it is totally crafted art.

"Craft" is one of the big concepts that artistic types like to bandy about, especially (across all media) if they are of a more traditional bent and they are bitching about the avant-garde. Look, Zep fans hate Modest Mouse ("they have no skill!"). Thomas Kincaid (WHOM I WILL SEE IN HELL) has GOT to hate Chris Ofili ("no artistic merit!"). More traditional-type poets hate my dissociative arcane ramblings, and I, who actually fairly hard on said ramblings, am not the biggest fan of slam poets who just holler out obvious pop-culturania. You have no craft!, we holler at them. Craft involves not only creation but refinement.

Art, on the other hand--well, art is about 55 hundred different things. But I think that in our modern times it is fair to say that art has become about ideas or expression. I hate that laziness that refuses to work on art--to apply craft--I hate it so much, people. And I hate worse the inverse of that--a lazy effort excused with "Oh, but it's art." Look, this week I made a foogly clock at Paul's shop. I did a crapass job on it, because I was bottom-feeding in the anhedonist swampland of dysthymia. But I'm gonna put it up as a reminder that even a cutie concept--the potential the clock kit once had--can be eradicated by inept or indifferent execution.

In other words, craft is the careful making of things, whereas art is the deliberate making of meaning. You want a mnemonic device? Looky: watercraft. Something that was made for the water.

Look. Some people are artists, and some craftsmen. Frequently, our more totally sweet art comes as a hybrid of the two. For example, THE MASTODON.

That fucking dopeness you see, to your right and above, is a perfect example of the marriage between art and craft. It probably took a long time, with lots of patience, attention to detail, and other things that I lack, for Eduardo Abaroa to make the mastodon and then make the cupcakes (all of notoriously fickle fiberglass), and then paint them (the cupcakes) all pretty, and then affix them securely to the mastodon. That is the "craft" part. The "art" part was the idea of putting these two things together, of what that might mean, about how good, and thought-provoking, and right, and funny, and elegant that would be. Either one without the other is weaker. To remove one from the other would diminish this piece. Even if you don't agree with me about Ancient vs. Modern (and if you don't you are a stupid idiot, but whatever), you have to see that point, and that it is applicable to other things, too.

Like let's check out an Alexander Calder mobile. It is pretty, and visually balanced yet impactful, and he invented this form--the mobile, which not only means "motion" but means "intent" (in French anyway, and my #1 fave boyfriend Marcel Duchamp apparently inspired that or something), but so anyway this mobile says something important about the war, and man vs. machine, and mass production that underscores and highlights the organic form. I am pulling much of this directly from my ass, but I think it's right. It's right because the craft part--the sheet metal and powder coating and enamelling and wire-twisting and welding and balance and bending--that's the craft part, right there, and that can be called either good or bad, but all the other stuff, the concepts and ideas and meanings that a simple clump of metal (no less but so much more) gives us: THAT is the art, and there is no right/wrong good/bad determinations to be made here. So Craft is subjective, and Art is objective, maybe, too. But whatever. I just like it. Am I making any earth-shattering points here? Well, no. But maybe I'll work on it, and will eventually shatter someone's world. Like yours!

A final word: When I went to look up my definitions like a good little academic, one of the examples I got was: "A poem is the work of the poet; poesy is his skill or craft of making." This is from Ben Jonson, the great seventeenth-century dramatist, poet, and wit (I stole this description from his website) that just looooves to quote the hell out of. But I'm here to focus on his quote, and why I think it's a great one. Poetry is a work, friends. You have to work on it, taking that chunk of marble, the idea, and sculpting it into something with meaning and form. And O, I am so close to opening the Nietzsche Birth of Tragedy Apollonian / Dionysian can of worms that I'm about to hyperventilate. I would venture to apply his quote further and say that you could say the finished product is poetry itself. But I like the idea of using "poesy" to name the craft part. And I super-like the idea of a National Poesy Slam. Because, dudes: I am hip to THAT jive. Look how good I crafted this essay! clm.

p.s. This little ditty, and the joy I experienced while hairball-hacking it up, has given me a new goal: that of being some kind of populist excitable art critic, on the radio or in print, that can make accessible to the general population not only art itself, but the amazing emotion and feelings it can evoke. In other words, what I want everyone to know is that ART JUST WANTS YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. Give it a little lovin'!

*I do this routinely, you know. Not only am I in a permanent state of either broke or cheap, but it seems dumb to buy newspapers and tabloids on any basis and particularly because I usually only read the Culture/Calendar/Food sections (aka "The Paper For Girls"--I get actual news through online and radio sources, generally) and the crosswords (at which I most totally rule).

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