Artist Mark Webster suggests that in order to better understand art’s value, we must be willing to consider the function of craft, including elements of skill less visible or immediate.
About the Author
Mark Webster is a teacher, writer and artist using custom-made software along with computational and generative strategies as his main approach.
On Craft, Art & Programming
Artist Mark Webster suggests that in order to better understand art’s value, we must be willing to consider the function of craft, including elements of skill less visible or immediate. The question of value with regard to art, whether you be the artist, collector or both, is a highly contested terrain. You may be interpreting “value” solely in monetary terms, something tied to an economic system and through which market forces conjure expectation or fear into belief and trust. Value, or rather values, are equally found elsewhere and I will suggest some other perspectives on the matter. In so doing, this brief essay, which I hope will be the beginning of many, is an attempt to open up discussion on the general theme at hand here, generative art. I will do this in a purposefully open manner, expressing varying points of view while contextualizing these references in order to lead to a more diverse understanding of the subject.
One of the first texts I read about the relationship between art and programming was Paul Graham’s infamous essay, “Hackers & Painters” from 2003. Interestingly, there is no mention of computer or generative art. Amid Graham’s lucid and light-hearted prose, he draws upon analogies and particular characteristics of the painter in order to better understand the hacker. The essay touches on something revealing regarding this short essay: He talks of a “maker of beautiful things.”
Let me draw your attention to the “maker of beautiful things.” The reason Graham’s essay resonates with me after all this time is that he brings to the fore particularities of programming that are not of the visible. That may seem strange considering the topic of visual art but I want to first of all bring into view this other perspective on programming. This perspective is not immediately self-evident, surely not to the uninitiated, and is perhaps even overlooked by the learned practitioner of art and code. I want to talk to you about craft.
Throughout history, examples of cultural divides abound. They have included rifts between the sciences and the arts, theory and practice as well as technique and expression. Of particular interest here is the Renaissance’s cleavage of art from craft. We have unfortunately inherited and assimilated this fictional boundary. Many today would perhaps frown upon the term craft ever being associated with their art. It appears that art is given a higher status where ideas reign with a master, while craft has been relegated to a twee corner of the studio and delegated to technician or worse, the assistant. I argue that we have more to learn and gain from their similarities rather than defend these walls of contention. My argument is not that differences do not exist; rather, I hold that common ground based on a long culturally tied heritage is worthy of interest.
Craft has something to teach us. More surprisingly, craft expresses a set of values that I believe we all too often forget or purposefully sweep under the carpet. It is a good time to remind ourselves in the current climate where the discourse on value is often too short-sighted.
In his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett defines craft as a basic human impulse for doing a job well for its own sake. With that rather general definition, he develops a very convincing set of arguments that encourage us to question the romantic view of the maker beavering away at material form with an array of curious tools in some dust-ridden workshop. He does this by taking us to professions that we would never have associated with craft, including the open-source programmer. Here I will bring Graham’s thoughts back into focus because his “maker of beautiful things” has as much to do here as Sennett’s craftsperson. Whereas Sennett is making a claim for a modern day artisan whose values reside not necessarily with the hand nor the material, Graham elucidates a view of the programmer as a painter. What brings them together is an underlying and strong sense of that timely notion we call skill.
Craft by definition is an activity which involves skill. The etymology of the word derives from the old English, craeft, meaning strength or skill. What is skill? That is perhaps an open question with many reasonable answers but Sennett proposes one that I agree with: Generally, a skill is what we acquire in order to do or make something. Whether writing a program in Python or potting at the wheel, skills are something that we humans learn throughout our lives. They are not static things but dynamic and, unless they are practiced on a regular basis, we often lose them.
Sennett considers skill to be a quality that we practice through repetition, claiming it requires at least ten thousand hours of practice to acquire one. A musician thus practices scales; a writer may sharpen their word sense with crossword puzzles; the programmer implements a new design pattern into their practice. Skill is a commitment to understanding a concept and the shifting of that understanding towards tacit knowledge.
Both Sennett and Graham talk of a sense of striving for quality work which is part of what comes from constantly practicing and acquiring new skills. To attain this so-called quality, the maker must be passionately engaged in the work, not treating it as a means to an end. According to Sennet, the craftsperson “represents the special human condition of being engaged.”1
It is this engagement in an activity, in perfecting the execution of one’s craft, in the dignity and pride that are involved in the exercise of a special skill and ability, that characterize values independently of the economic functions and purposes of the object that is produced.
These are profound and comforting thoughts for which I think we could give more attention to when it comes to considering the artist whose practice involves the conception, writing and developing of some formal written system from which visual form emerges. In order to make the art one wishes to make, one needs commitment and engagement to the activity at hand. That may read as common sense and yet it is not as easy as it sounds. It is not a push-button affair as I see some of our “artistic” endeavors have become. It certainly is not a game of quick gratification; rather, it is quite the opposite and it is arguably here that the work begins and value ensues.
Historically, craft has been rooted in particular tools and associated techniques, often defining its respective practice. Practices have been varied, including painting, photography, typography and printmaking. There is a continual dialogue between the maker and their tools, like a privileged relationship through which tools shape but also tools are equally shaped. One interesting facet of what bubbles to the surface in both Graham and Sennett’s texts is how skill is deeply entwined with this concept of tools. They also both touch on how the coder, hacker or programmer is engaged not just in the use of these but also in the actual conception, creation and active collective modification of these tools.
This is what makes the artist-programmer special in my eyes. It is a practice that reconciles the divisions of labor that all too often define our creative industries. Not always, of course not, but I see a strong spirit of the craftsperson within this field of the digital. There are many artists who adhere to the values of the craftsperson. Some have been active for a good long time and have gone about their craft in a manner that has been of immense value to others too. They do this with commitment, skill and an engagement that often goes beyond the call of the canvas and for which we need to be more open towards when considering our little niche of makers of beautiful things.
1 Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. p. 20. Penguin Books, 2009.
Mark Webster was born in Canada, raised in England and currently lives in France. After graduating in London with a modern languages degree in 1997, he moved to Paris and began to orientate his work towards the arts. This has involved an eclectic mix of activities in diverse areas such as animation, sound design, graphic design, teaching and even a stint as a journalist working in the field of motion design.
In the last couple of years, his efforts have been devoted to developing a body of personal artistic work that is driven by curiosity to explore and experiment with code based media. He creates art and graphic work primarily using custom-made software tools along with computational and generative strategies as his main approach.