What shall we say, shall we call it by a name?

Art. Craft. Potato, Potahto.

I read Jarrod’s post, http://jarrodstonedahl.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-world-of-craft-without-being-art.html

and then Robin’s.http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/wood-craft-blog/2013/11/21/old-art-craft-debate/

It’s weird stuff. I have no idea where I fall in the discussion. I usually stay out of it. When asked what I am, (that is, what is my job…) I describe myself as a joiner – and here in America most folks don’t know what that means. At the museum where I work, I and others who make things with our hands are called “artisans”. Because of all the carving on my furniture, people often say, “You’re an artist:” – and my response is usually that I consider myself a craftsman.


chair carvings

I had a visitor from Germany one day this year. She was looking at some carved panels I had on the bench. In her hesitant English, which was very good although she had little confidence in it, she said “It is very artificial.”

I thanked her greatly, and stressed that she had just used the term right out of the 17th century; and there weren’t many places where she would be understood using that old meaning of the word. I pictured people being upset or hurt that someone thought their stuff artificial.

But its roots are in artifice – someone who makes such things is an artificer. I dug out the OED & got these snippets:

artificer 1. A person who makes things by art or skill; an artisan, a craftsman.

▸a1393   Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) vii. l. 1691   Artificers, Whiche usen craftes and mestiers, Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

1445   Petition in Rolls of Parl. (2005) Parl. Feb. 1445 §44. m. 6   Þe wages of..a maister tyler or sclatter, rough mason and meen carpenter, and other artificers..by the day .iij. d. with mete and drynk.

a1475   J. Russell Bk. Nurture (Harl. 4011) in Babees Bk. (2002) i. 187   Worshipfulle merchaundes and riche artyficeris.

c1517   King Henry VIII Let. 3 May in Camden Misc. (1992) XXXI. 32   A great number of..malicious jorneymen of theire..rancorous disposition against aliens and strangers, artificers and others..soddenly assembled themselves withein our..citty.

1592   T. Nashe Pierce Penilesse (Brit. Libr. copy) sig. C4v,   A base Artificer, that hath no reuenues to bost on.

1659   Milton Considerations touching Hirelings 147   From the magistrate himself to the meanest artificer.

1671   Milton Paradise Regain’d iv. 59   Carv’d work, the hand of fam’d Artificers In Cedar, Marble, Ivory or Gold.

artifice †1. The action of an artificer; the making of something by art or skill; craftsmanship, workmanship. Also: the work of an artificer; manual or mechanical work. Obs.

1526   Grete Herball sig. Qiii/1,   Hony is made by artyfyce, and craft of bees.

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1686) v. v. 195   Adam immediately issued from the Artifice of God.

1667   Milton Paradise Lost ix. 39   The skill of Artifice or Office mean, Not that which justly gives Heroic name To Person or to Poem.

a1682   Sir T. Browne Certain Misc. Tracts (1683) i. 4   The early artifice in Brass and Iron under Tubal-Cain.

2. Human skill or workmanship as opposed to nature or a natural phenomenon.

1526   Grete Herball sig. sig. Pvv/2,   There be yt are naturall without artyfyce or craft & they be ye best & whan ye fynde perles in receptes it is them ytbe naturall perles.

a1533   Ld. Berners tr. A. de Guevara Golden Bk. M. Aurelius (1537) f. 79,   As ye se a thynge made by artyfice peryshe, and a naturall thynge laste.

1593   J. Eliot Ortho-epia Gallica 153   No artifice of man can tell how to counterfait her note.

1774   G. Marriott Estimate of Human Life 355   Nature..infinitely excelled human Artifice.



a. Of a thing: made or constructed by human skill, esp. in imitation of, or as a substitute for, something which is made or occurs naturally; man-made.

c1425   Lydgate Troyyes Bk. (Augustus A.iv) iii. l. 5678 (MED),   Bawme natural, Þat ran þoruȝ pipes artificial.

c1475   tr. H. de Mondeville Surgery (Wellcome) f. 157,   Close þe lippis of þe wounde &..binde hem & hele hem wiþ wiyn and stupis & pressuris & plagellis & artificial byndynge.

1547   C. Langton Very Brefe Treat. Phisick ii. vi. sig. Gviv,   Artificiall bathes, be made by mannes witte.

1588   T. Hariot Breife Rep. Virginia sig. E2,   Their houses are..in most townes couered with barkes, and in some with artificiall mattes made of long rushes.

1611   S. Rowlands Four Knaves 22   An artificiall flie of silk.

1663   Marquis of Worcester Cent. Names & Scantlings Inventions xlvi,   How to make an artificial Bird to fly.

In sixteenth-century England rules concerning the trades’ management were created. These were called  the Statute of Artificers. http://www.ditext.com/morris/1563.html  

I remember Jogge Sundqvist using the term “handycraftsman” – but like the German visitor, this is a case of having  Jogge’s idea being translated into English…

Jogge Sundqvist at Country Workshops, 2010
Jogge Sundqvist at Country Workshops, 2010

But “handycraftsman” is an old term, think of Moxon’s book’s title, Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-works. I ran into this phrase when Trent & I studied Boston joiners too.  Here is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, vol. 4, #4, Jan. 1894, pp. 305-6:

 Fac-Simile of a Petition of the Handycraftsmen of Boston in 1677, Against the Intrusion of Strangers

On page 426 of his “History and Antiquities of Boston” the late Samuel G. Drake gives an account of the accompanying Petition. The original document, of which a fac-simile is now presented, was once owned by Drake, who thus describes it:

 “May 29, 1677. At the may session of the General Court, the Handycraftsmen, a very considerable part of the Town of Boston,’ to the number of one hundred and twenty-nine, put in a petition, praying for protection in their several callings, `whose outward subsistence,’ they say, `doth depend upon God’s blessing, and many of us not having estates any other way to advantage ourselves; that by the frequent intruding of strangers from all parts, especially of such as are not desirably qualified, find ourselves under great disadvantages, and prejudicial to the Towne; and many times the stranger drawes away much of the custome from his neighbor, which hath been long settled, and in reality is much more the deserving man; whereby it has already come to pass with many, that severall inhabitants that have lived comfortably upon their trades, and been able to bear publick charges in a considerable degree, now cannot subsist, which is very pernicious and prejudiciall to the Towne; and some that never served any time, or not considerably for the learning of a Trade, yet finding wayes to force themselves into the Towne, and then sometimes by hireing or buying a servant, they doe set up a Trade, and thus draw away the custom of the Petitioners belonging to the Town, as above has been set forth. They, therefore, `conceiving that the foresaid disadvantages do arise, either for the want of power to make orders, or due execution of orders, ask that power might be granted to the Selectmen,’ or others, `for a regular and effectual execution of all such orders as are, or may be made, referring to the admission of inhabitants; that Tradesmen shall fulfill a sufficient apprenticeship, and be (proficients?) before they set up Trades, etc.

For “artist” I think of Heather – http://heatherneill.com/



13 thoughts on “What shall we say, shall we call it by a name?

  1. Peter,

    “Weather Report Suite: Part II (Let It Grow)”

    First performed September 7, 1973, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. It debuted in the second set, following “Loser” and preceding “Stella Blue”.

    Some interesting information about some of the meanings of the song that I’ll pass on later. As well as the main discussion of the post!


  2. People can’t help but worry about this stuff because the words “art”/”craft” are fraught with judgement, and ranked in value. But the words themselves are artificial; their meanings and connotations rather shifty over time, as you point out, to boot. The divisions and rankings described by the words have an awful lot of cultural arbitrariness floating around them, too.

    Makes me feel lucky—those of us who build pies and omelets and loaves of bread never have to worry about where the artifact ends up.The body of work is by definition ephemeral; the exhibit lasts only through breakfast.

    The urge to make others—and thus yourself—happy by creating beautiful and useful things, and to learn from those who have done so before… isn’t that really enough?

  3. That’s very helpful Peter. In a sense you practice the art of 17C joinery and 17C american panel decoration but it is not Art by any of the definitions that are around. However if you were to take those mechanics, those artisan skills and deliberately make distorted or asymetric furniture for an effect, then that might be Art.
    If you make your regular furniture but decorate it with carvings that draw on your local environment in a way that hasn’t been done before, such that each piece or set are unique and the style is recognisably your own. Sufficiently your own that those in the know can state “That is a Follansbee” then that too might be Art.
    There was a portrait artist here whose skill is beyond doubt, but critics say his portraits are not Art because they are too lifelike, photographic in a way that only large format film can achieve.
    Edvard Munch did lifelike portraits but is famous in Art for ‘The Scream’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream.
    More relevant, Anton Seuffert made furniture. His craft/artisan skills were joiner/cabinetmaker, veneer inlay, glue and varnish making. My question is: is his furniture Art? http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/objectdetails.aspx?oid=57516&coltype=history&regno=pf000079
    As an artisan at Plimoth Plantation you are somewhat restricted but I look forward to the day you use your craft skills to produce a joined chest as an object of Art.

  4. Recently here in Australia, the ABC aired a series from UK BBC broadcaster called Mastercrafts. In it they showed the skills and dedication required to become a Master in the crafts of blacksmithing, weaving, thatching, stone masonry, stained glass and green wood crafting. It is into this last category I would place you, were I the god of categorisation. I see you as a Master Craftsman.

  5. Oh, and another thing… I am a great believer in William Morris’ idea that one should only have in their home those things that are either useful, or that they consider beautiful. Although Kant would say an object must be either one or the other, I would disagree and place the majority of what I have seen on this blog into both categories. I would be exceedingly happy to have any item you craft in my home.

    • I learned of it through this book – Margaret Gay Davies, The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship: A Study of Applied Mercantilism 1563-1642 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1956) – a pretty dry exercise, but it has a lot of the Statute, if not all of it. I think there were a few versions, two in the 1560s. I didn’t find the whole text online; but didn’t search long either.

  6. I hope you will not take offense but I just come to the realization that I guess I knew all along Mr Pollansbee you’re an intellectual (“Late Middle English: from intellectus ‘understanding’ from intellegere “understand ).

    Although my lack of woodworking skill safely insulates me from this present discussion.

    In the early 80s I was a young hip photographer in DC. We would sit sipping Perrier arguing the merits of art versus craft. It was all great fun but at some point you understood – it doesn’t change the picture. Just put down the glass and go take the photo.
    That would be my answer.

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