Old Magic

A conundrum I’ve struggled with my entire life has been that eternal set of questions: “What is Art?”, “What is Craft?”, and “How are the two related?”

It’s always worth an evening to engage friends in conversation about these things. We can talk all night, but what has eluded us every time is a concise set of answers, some commonplaces about Art and Craft. Until now.

While I’ve got a sense that the mere act of putting forth my revelations about Craft and Art will reveal their flaws, showing the cracks in their reasoning, it’s much better to share them with you than to hide them away.

I’ll start with Craft. Put in its simplest terms, I believe Craft is the power of transformation. There is something materially alchemical in the taking of raw materials—paper, wool, and apples are the examples I’ll use here—and through skill and work turning them into something else, something useful. Through Craft we can create something that didn’t exist before—paper becomes a book, wool a sweater, apples applesauce.

Art, as an activity, cannot exist without Craft, because at its core Art is also the power of transformation. But Art adds something more. In Art, transformation is enhanced by imagination. A blank book becomes something greater once a story is printed in it. A sweater takes on meaning if it is made as a gift by a loved one who is thinking of the recipient. And anyone who has spent time around the artisan food scene (in Berkeley or elsewhere) knows that homemade applesauce is rarely mere applesauce.

There are a few theories as to why the D.I.Y. movement—people making more of the things they use every day—is making a comeback. Some point to the alienation brought about by technology that discourages us from meeting face-to-face. Others say the terrible economy is leading people to stay at home and take up productive hobbies. These are valid reasons, but there is something greater, something more basic and ancient, at work here.

Craft and Art are activities that have always been with us, as I was reminded by Werner Herzog’s footage of Paleolithic cave paintings in his film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I believe that our taking hold of these powers of transformation is a response to a feeling of awe or powerlessness in the face of larger forces.

We pick up raw materials. We work with them. We sharpen our skills. Each of us adds touches that only we can, and we share the results with others. In doing so, we transform our environment. We shape our world so it makes more sense to us. Craft is the power of transformation. Art is the power of transformation imbued with imagination. They are acts of old magic. In fact, they may be the defining features of what it means to be human.