As I was browsing a book by my dear friend Kim Sang Soo, a famous artist from Korea, I started to contemplate the meaning of art once again. I’ve had this discussion art vs. craft many times in the past with my then teenage stepdaughter and I don’t think I was ever able to properly articulate why I felt some works fell into the art category while I regarded others rather as craft. Leafing through Kim Sang Soo’s book, a thought occurred to me.
Often, artists are driven by their inner need to create; in that process, the vehicle isn’t as important as the message or the creation. Kim Sang Soo, for example, is one of these incredibly creative minds. To bring his ideas into the world, he uses a vast array of different techniques: he takes photos (although I wouldn’t call him a photographer), he writes essays, composes operas, creates installations and works in the theatre. While he’s probably not the most technically perfect creator in any of these art forms, his creations work - they speak to us, make us think or sometimes, just generate happiness through a sense of aesthetic perfection. It’s the creation in the artistic sense which is important, not the technical know-how of how to use the necessary tools perfectly. The resulting aesthetics work often despite technical deficiencies, not because of technical perfection. An artist has the eye and the vision to create a piece (be it theatre, photography or music) and the rest will fall into place. Kim Sang Soo is well known for his photographs, but his camera skills are a long shot from most semi-professional photographers. He never crops, never corrects anything in post-production, never alters. He shoots what he sees. And what he sees is the art. Many of his shots are blurry - to the extent that you and I would probably erase them from our cameras. But despite this ‘flaw’, the photos work. Sometimes because of the blur, but most often despite it. An artist captures the essence of a scene or an object that’s hard to put in words and that most of us would otherwise miss. But he helps us to see by preserving (and highlighting) it for us.
My definition of craft, on the other hand, comes from perfecting a specific task. The result is often extremely aesthetic, beautifully executed and adorable for its final form. But often, the artistic vision is lacking. Somebody isn’t an artist, just because he paints portraits really well. If the painter conveys the spirit of a person through that painting, it becomes art. Otherwise, it’s craft to me. Most professional photography is a well-honed craft and has little artistic value. While I admire perfectly executed photos and constantly aim to improve my own photography, they often lack artistic essence. That’s fine, and I’m alright with that. Well crafted composition can be very satisfying in itself.
What does all this have to do with tea, you might ask. Producing handmade tea is a craft that has been perfected for many generations. While some people use tea in creating art, it is not usually regarded as an artistic expression. But when it comes to teaware, the boundaries between art and craft start to blur. Yixing teapots are often said to be the most perfect marriage between an object of art and one of practical use. Most artworks are of little if any practical use and for visual or intellectual enjoyment only. But when it comes to Yixing teaware, ‘the teapot becomes the canvas’ and still remains a teapot, meant to be used for brewing tea. While there are many teapots that fall into the crafts category, there are pieces of art out there that speak to us, touch us emotionally. Sitting down for a quiet tea session with teaware that moves you and a tea that touches you is one of the most satisfying experiences you can have.
Now, I’ll drink a cup of pu-erh to you all, wishing that you get touched this Easter as deeply as some works of art manage to touch us. Maybe you want raise your cup to the full moon, just as I did last night when I took the title picture to this post.202c