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Foreword - Although this article was originally aimed at a crafts audience, I hope you find some relevance to your chosen skill. (Originally published in Craftsman Magazine, January 2007 and edited for Local Artist).

It seems that to ask this innocent little question, is to open a can of worms hundreds of years old and a city full of art galleries wide. At the heart of it lies the impenetrable conundrum of what is art. Is this too big a challenge? Nah, lets have a crack at it! We all know it's there like a sleeping giant, so lets get some debate going and tentatively reach for the opener…

Although Local Artist represents diverse talents, I'd like to suggest that the broader issues affect all of us, irrespective of our chosen skill.

What follows, is a personal reflection of my experience in the craft environment over the past three years, how I have reached my current position, and why I find myself asking the question. I know I'm not the first to do so, but let's hope this inspires some interesting thoughts and feedback.

So, what defines art or craft in our environment (in the context of our day to day experience as sellers at shows / galleries?) My wife and I started selling cards at craft events, three years ago with Wicked Wires, and it has been to say the least, an unusual experience. We pitched our prices at the top end, as our work was completely hand made (from design to packaging), and, to date, we've had reasonable success in this otherwise saturated market. The problems started when some organisers desperate to fill pitches ended up with not only serious duplication of crafts, but also allowing bought in goods. This may sound horribly familiar to anyone who's been on the craft circuit.

Now this isn't an open ended attack against craft organisers, but it leads to a bigger question. What is the end result of this strategy? Does is get more people through the gates? Does it earn the organiser enough money to do the same thing over next year? Or does it cheapen the image of crafts in general? Your answer will probably vary depending on your craft. One thing crafters appear to have general agreement over is that crafts are suffering an image crisis. Some events we have experienced have had the feel of a glorified car boot sales, with the public expecting everything to be cheap because it's 'crafts'. (If there's any organisers reading this and taking offence, I'd like to point out that some crafters are as much to blame). Some are traders using the shows as an alternative retail outlet, some are the stick in the mud types who have been doing their craft since 1764 and are happy to see out their years behind a rickety doily covered table, and some just sit, eat, read, whinge and expect business to come to them. None of this is helping a beleaguered industry.

It is the public perception of arts and crafts that broadly define its value and status. This may be helped or otherwise by organisers' attitude to the market, but let's stick with the resulting 'perception' idea for now. For some people our cards are too expensive, for some they are just right and the cost is almost irrelevant. Everyone will have experienced this in their craft, but would you agree that cards fall into the 'crafts' bracket and not art? If so, how about jewellery, pottery, glass wear or textiles? The following may seem a little odd, but… Are these boundaries defined not only by perceived value but also by far more mundane considerations? Such as, is the item practical? How big is it? How difficult is it to make? Is it easy to copy? Is the artist/crafter well known?

Let's have a look at some of these suggestions.

  1. Is the item practical?  If the object can be used in a domestic/commercial environment, such as a vase or bowl, it is usually classed as a craft. But what if that vase has a (deliberate) flaw in it; a hole or artefact which the maker has introduced as part of the design, making it unusable in a practical sense? Does it then become a work of art? Where should it be displayed, an art gallery or craft show?
  2. How big is it? If it fits in your house without being embarrassingly overbearing, is it a craft? If it has to go in the garden, surely it must be art?! For example, with glass work, the size varies enormously, from jewellery to large installations in public spaces using the same or similar techniques but scaled for different audiences. Not many people have stained glass windows in their homes, but those leaded lights that were so popular before double glazed front doors, would, if bought now, probably be considered a craft item and not art.
  3. How difficult is it to make? This one is really tricky, and is deep down one of the key factors behind my writing this article. Everyone knows that a painting, irrespective of  technique is usually a time consuming process, and the skills and processes that go into realising the artist's ideas are what give it value? The reason for questioning the last proposition, is that very many of our most revered classical artists received little or no recognition during their lifetimes and/or died penniless in their attempts to realise their dreams.
  4. How easy is it to copy? I guess that it is only worth copying if the item has sufficient intrinsic value to make it worthwhile - who has ever heard of the great 2p copying scandal? Design theft is obviously a huge problem in the arts and crafts world and the sufferer of such an attack would never consider it flattery. Once again, the perceived value alters its art/craft status.
  5. Is the artist well known? A couple of years ago in a marquee on a freezing November night, we had a stall next to someone selling paintings. The paintings sold well, as did our cards. We all got on well and still keep in touch with them. A year after that cold night, the painter was offered a contract by a major publisher and has recently finished a sell out tour of the country. Needless to say the value of the work has gone through the roof and people are waiting for years to get their hands on an original (how I wish I'd bought one then!). So professional marketing, advertising and promotion all play their part in boosting an unknown into the public spotlight. This particular artist's work would now only be considered art, never crafts, and yet they could just as easily still be standing at a craft stall.

To summarise this little sojourn into definitions and bring it back into context, the craft or art is defined by a huge array of variables, the above being just some obvious ones. Is any of this useful information? As you can probably tell by now, the 'solution' to the headline question is likely to be a hazy one, but will hopefully lead the reader to consider where and how they position (i.e. market) their art.

As mentioned earlier, I have been involved in the crafts scene for some time, but my core skill is in photography and that has led me on a fascinating journey into the world of galleries and the murky cross-over no mans' land that often lies between. Last year I decided to be brave and try selling my photography under the name Blue Shift Gallery. I have sold work through art galleries and craft fairs. To my surprise, I have had equal success at both. I'm still trying to establish myself, so my work isn't in the broader public domain. So is my trade art or a craft? It isn't of practical use, but will fit in most people's houses. It is difficult to make as I use specialist scientific techniques for some of my imaging. For me, exploiting the more unusual and unseen properties of light to produce bold graphic images, is my USP.

The processes (classical and digital), which all professional photographers will recognise are broadly speaking: Research, setup and lighting, image capture, developing or transfer and storage, processing/retouching, colour management and monitoring, printing, mounting, framing, auditing and finally selling/marketing. Each of these steps are involved, time consuming and often expensive. Is this different in real terms to producing a painting? Or is it the public perception that because an image is 'snapped' (my blood boils when people say that!) in an instant, it has lesser value? It appears that some art galleries won't entertain photography as an art form, but they will have jewellery or vases  (weren't they practical goods and therefore crafts?).

Many galleries have a wide range of high quality arts and crafts, but promote themselves as  art galleries. This has two effects. People believe (rightly) that the work is going to be of a high standard and professionally displayed, and (wrongly) that everything is bound to be very expensive 'after all, 'it's an art gallery!' This second point means that they don't have hundreds of people coming through the doors, unlike an average craft fair, and yet I have seen items of far higher value at many craft fairs.

To my mind, photography is no different to any other skill and deserves the same weight and credibility given to it, which I know has not always been the case. In my previous work as a scientific photographer, we were seen as the lesser cousins to 'real' scientists, and the advent of digital imaging, has revived the 'I've got a digital camera - I can do that' syndrome.

Perhaps its main problem is that photography in everyday life is so widespread that most people do not differentiate the 'snap' from the properly thought out image. This isn't the case with painting or blown glass for example, as it is far less common. I wonder if, before the advent of mass market photography, painting and drawing was barely noticed and was partly to blame for the misfortunes of artists now regarded as Masters. Despite the availability of technology and imaging devices, to produce a professional quality image is as costly in skills, time and knowledge as any other craft (let alone the expense!).

So when we look back at how photography sits in the arts and crafts market, it appears that it is our constantly flexing definition of the two which makes it sit a little uneasily between them.   Maybe it's because arts and crafts are really just the same language spoken in different dialects? Constantly shaped and reshaped by market forces, advertising, consumers and us, the artists trying to make a living in our own speciality.

Jurgen Dabeedin
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01707 647591

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