On Artistry and Craftsmanship

A few days ago, some game design folks were talking about the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry. Specifically, Elizabeth Ryerson and Adam Saltsman suggested some exclusivity in that relationship, that refined craftsmanship interferes with or detracts from artistic expression. It isn’t clear to me in Elizabeth’s post whether this is meant as a general rule, or one specific to indie games, or even more specific to Michael Brough’s Corrypt, and Adam’s post leaves his definitions of craft and art vague, but I think there are other points that should be included in the discussion.

My initial impulse—one to be cautious of—is that, rather than craftsmanship interfering with or detracting from artistry, it serves as a prerequisite. In this relationship, craftsmanship is a skillful, creative act that has no meaning beyond itself while artistry is the created meaning dependent upon craft. There are problems with these definitions, since they blur with intent and context. For example, Duchamp’s Urinal was a work of common craftsmanship given artistic meaning through context.

Despite the exceptions and edge cases, there is still a lulling sense of “truth” to this explanation. In writing, craftsmanship and artistry intersect in the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck; in film, Kubrick, Scorsese, Kurosawa; and in art, Rembrandt, Monet, Michelangelo. These are the voices of the mainstream, where the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry is most accepted, if not usually in so many words.

The greater problem with this definition is that it can foster contempt of the experimental, especially when that means a reinterpretation of craftsmanship. Pollock, Mondrian, and Van Gogh are often dismissed because they do not meet an expected standard of “good” craftsmanship. They are, as my dad frequently says, “like finger painting.” He, like many in a mainstream audience, will not approach a work’s artistry if he cannot appreciate its craftsmanship.

There is still some confusion here, though. Although these artists had non-traditional goals for craftsmanship, their works are still skillful. Pollock may have splattered paint, and Van Gogh may have occasionally used his fingers, but their sense of composition is a mastered skill. Because of this, I think their goals of craftsmanship will gain (and have gained) acceptance over time, just as Picasso’s works have. But we are more willing to accept Picasso’s abstract works because he demonstrated that they were a choice rather than a limit of skill.  The confusion here, to restate it, is due to a subjective sense of good and bad.

What about “objectively bad” craftsmanship? I’m not sure there is such a thing, but for the sake of argument let’s define bad craftsmanship as that which requires the least skill. If I placed a child’s clumsy and generic drawing of a house (smoke looping in ringlets from a chimney) next to an effectively identical work by an artist, there would be some justified confusion. The artist may intend to represent the suburban dream and its ironies, while the child may think a house would be fun to draw. This leads to the theoretical hells of death of the author and the necessity of metatexts, but that’s not my purpose here; the confusion alone illustrates that our senses of artistry and craftsmanship are more complex than my impulse definition.

Another example should help. If a writer wishes to indicate an unreliable narrator or stream of consciousness, they could intentionally decrease the quality of their craftsmanship, making it less refined to reflect the character. There are few alternatives to this approach, but succeeding in it is still a mark of craftsmanship. Writing in a dialect, for example, requires skill that is not visible in the language itself; the skill is to make the language feel natural. Specifically, despite Huckleberry Finn’s limited vocabulary, flawed grammar, and racism, there is a craftsmanship visible through Twain’s composition.

There are cases, however, where intentionally bad, or intentionally non-traditional, craftsmanship does not appear to serve an artistic purpose. This is the territory of style without substance or style separate from substance. I find these works difficult to accept. Specifically, Cormac McCarthy’s style frustrates me because it seems to serve no purpose but its own; it feels contrived. Similarly, I have difficulty reaching a conclusion about David Lynch’s films because they often seem weird for the sake of being weird, rather than always serving an artistic purpose. Generally this problem is visible in films where the traditionally accepted techniques are ignored or non-traditional techniques are used.

Yet the discomfort caused by these alternative definitions, or rejections, of craftsmanship still serves a purpose. There are many specific cases where this allows for new artistry otherwise impossible, such as unreliable narration indicated by “bad” writing or “bad” cinematography. But it also forces the audience to engage with a work in a different way. Once the expectations of craftsmanship are subverted, the audience has to either participate analytically, or ignore the work entirely. The use of montage, jump cuts, and color correction in film prevents the audience from watching it in the same way they might watch a mainstream film.

Even with this beneficial side to non-traditional craftsmanship, the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry is nuanced, as I have hopefully shown. A film like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color may need some “bad” craftsmanship to achieve its artistic goals, but the extent of this necessity is unclear. With establishing shots, the film would have improved its craftsmanship and become more accessible to a mainstream audience, but without them, the audience is forced to either approach the work critically or ignore it. Since a few changes probably would not have reduced the artistic purpose, we can imagine an alternate form of the film that would be “better,” but we can’t be certain.¹

Returning to games and the specific examples of Elizabeth’s post, the visuals of Corrypt serve a purpose by being non-traditional, but the same artistic purpose may have been served to a wider audience through some other (more comfortable and mainstream) approach to its craftsmanship. The best version of the game is impossible to know, given the infinite alternatives and extents possible, but it doesn’t hurt to imagine.

The more significant question, I think, is this: what audience are we trying to reach? There is a small audience that willfully seeks challenging works, an audience for whom artistry is less dependent of craftsmanship. Then there is an audience like my dad that will see finger paints or the video game equivalent, “it looks like pong.” With this question of audience is the question of purpose, and that’s something we all must answer on our own.²

TL;DR: Artistry without craftsmanship can serve a purpose, but sometimes greater craftsmanship only helps. But the best balance of the two depends on purpose and audience.


¹ See also Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”

² Money, the other theme of Elizabeth and Adams’ posts, resides in the intersection between audience and purpose. The “best practice” at this intersection is a topic for a different article.

3 thoughts on “On Artistry and Craftsmanship

  1. “like many in a mainstream audience, will not approach a work’s artistry if he cannot appreciate its craftsmanship.”

    I think this is the key sentence here.

    You fall into the trap of saying Upstream Colour is bad because you don’t like the style of its editing. It’s not bad craftmanship. I think it’s fantastically well made, but that’s not the point. The point is that Shane Carruths wasn’t trying to make something ‘bad’ from a craft point of view but good from an art point of view. That’s a nonsense dichotomy like you point out in the beginning.

    Of course he was probably well aware that he was taking a more unconventional path, but like Brough, he wasn’t taking this path to be unconventional. Instead they simply were trying to make the best work they could and thought the decisions they would make would led to a better film.

    It all comes down to taste.

    1. Maybe I did not express my point very clearly. The personal pronoun in the sentence you quoted refers to my dad, who does not care about artistry; he is as mainstream American as is possible. I, on the other hand, try to appreciate artistry without craftsmanship, but I struggle with it sometimes, as I noted with David Lynch.

      To address Upstream Color in particular, I found it interesting, and I plan on watching it again. I placed scare quotes around “bad” craftsmanship for a reason. A lot of the craftsmanship is masterful, but a lot of the techniques (particularly the lack of establishing shots, but also the frequent use of jump cuts) prevents a more comfortable, mainstream experience. I think these choices serve a purpose—the sampler’s death probably could not work so well if establishing shots were used in the traditional way elsewhere, and the jump cuts and repetitions produce a feeling similar to an unreliable memory—but it’s difficult to argue that it could or could not be improved. Whether this decision was the best depends on Carruth’s goals. If he wanted a more mainstream audience, he could have made different choices, but the work may be worse for it. It’s difficult to say.

      I end up at basically the same conclusion you have noted, though, and I plan to add a “tl;dr” to clarify this. Your decision about the importance of artistry and craftsmanship in what you make, as well as what you watch/read/play, is up to taste.

      1. I realize you were talking about your Dad (and I truncated the quote unintentionally) but I think this applies to absolutely everyone. Of course some people will make the effort to try new foods, especially something that is critically lauded, and push themselves (like yourself). I think everyone should (This comes to mind from Will Self: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17777556).

        The next two paragrapha aren’t really directed at you, I think you’re on the same page, but I’m posting it to clarify for myself. Everyone’s ability to appreciate something is utterly influenced by their cognitive understanding and ability to grasp it. It’s nothing to do with intelligence or any kind of awful elitism but the amount of exposure you have had to similar work, which manifests in your taste. When you were child I doubt you would have like the bands you do, and I doubt you like all the music you did then. Again I add it’s not a linear path from Lullabies to Stockhausen, but a spectrum of all the possibilities.

        So wide popularity does not necessarily equate with higher craftsmanship but an ability to be appreciated by many tastes. Green Day for example, can take some aspects of more obscure, rougher music but present in a more digestible and palatable way will become successful. It does take a lot of skill to produce a slick million selling album. Whereas for other recording artists, let’s say Of Montreal (still a fairly widely known band but much less popular and I would argue much better craftspeople), it also takes an enormous amount of skill to create their work. They possibly have the knowledge and ability to create broader music but choose not to and funnel their ability in other directions. That is you can’t correlate how good the craft is directly from how popular something is (nor inversely :P).

        I guess it depends what we mean by craftsmanship. Perhaps the issue here, like most things I imagine, is semantics. I see it as the skill, technique and understanding that has gone into and influenced what you are creating, whether directly or indirectly. I think David Lynch to be master craftsman, one of the most talented writers & directors film has seen. However, if we are going to define craftsmanship as the literal creation of something that’s most conducive to as wide an audience as possible enjoying it, then ok. :)

        Actually looking back at your post and Adam’s I think what threw me probably is the odd definitions of art and craft as two sides of a spectrum (something for them, something for me). And a redefinition of craftsmanship as making a craft, and artistry as marking an art. Imo, if craftsmanship is a hard word to pin down, then ‘artistry’ is impossible. Perhaps all my above thoughts are off topic then, but food for thought anyway.

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