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Wednesday, 03 August 2011 13:05

Living the good life includes the arts

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Art is aesthetic; crafts are practical.

That’s the difference between the two, at least in theory. The distinction between arts and crafts becomes blurred, however, when you attend an event as tremendous as the annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands in Asheville.

I was smart enough to make the trip over to the big city a couple of weekends ago, despite not particularly relishing the prospects of an hour-long drive there and the ensuing battle that always follows for parking. But I set those drawbacks aside and went with a friend, and came away thrilled. I’ve been thinking about the show ever since.

There were indeed crafts being shown there that are mainly functional. These included a dizzying array of potters with kitchenware, carvers and their walking sticks, and textile artists who had turned out one-of-a-kind articles of clothing.

I enjoyed all of that very much indeed. The craftsmanship, the attention to detail — it was truly wonderful.

But what set me to ruminating were the craftspeople who transcended their crafts and created what undeniably constituted art. I’m not sure where that line shifts, which leaves me feeling a bit like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, in classifying what constituted obscenity, wrote “I shall not today attempt further to define what kinds of material I understand to be embraced … But I know it when I see it.”

I do remember reading something that impressed me very much when I was younger and that seems pertinent, though I can’t quote it accurately. The sentiment, however, is something like this: work on the basics of your craft, and leave it to others to determine whether it rises to the level of art. Which leads nicely into this perspective, by Pablo Picasso: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

All that said, I’m still at a loss to define art in comparison to what constitutes craft.

Before returning home that day from Asheville, I plunked down more money than I could comfortably afford for a piece by a ceramic artist who was showing her work at the craft fair. This for a figurine that, once seen, I knew I couldn’t easily live without. It is a piece that I’m totally comfortable describing as an original piece of art, though we all now know that I’m incapable of explaining what, exactly, I mean by that.

Here’s my little personal credo: I believe in living with fine art, great music and literature. I want original paintings on my walls and fine sculptures here and there in my home. I enjoy listening to classical music, I read the classics and I love good food.

(I also hate watermelon, listen to bluegrass, watch and enjoy perfectly wretched true-crime shows on television, and read British mysteries and very bad science-fiction fantasy novels — but that’s a discussion for another day).

This is a tough economy for artists, musicians and writers. There’s not a lot of extra money these days for items that many might think superfluous, such as paintings, sculptures, concerts, plays, books of poems and novels.

Sometimes, frankly, I feel that way, too. Reporters are not among the world’s best-paid people, surprisingly enough, and supporting the arts can be tough on one’s checkbook.

But I have no regrets about supporting the ceramic artist I met at the craft fair in Asheville, and for helping to underwrite her future work by paying a fair exchange for a piece that is truly lovely (in a sort of tortured-artist-kind of lovely way).

Because I smiled when I got the figurine home, unpacked it, and realized that it would stay with me. I find that truly amazing, the fact I can actually live with and enjoy something this great, a piece imagined inside someone’s head and transferred in a wondrous, inexplicable way through their hands.

Sculpture, books, music, paintings and other forms of art — truly, this constitutes the good life as I define it, and is what makes me feel rich.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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