In my time as a carver I’ve been asked frequently whether jade working is a craft or an art? With some people there is a clear assumption that it is a craft, and that this is inferior to art. But there is plenty of “slop” in the definitions of the terms and we need to consider a few extra factors before making a decision on the matter.
I admit I’m not comfortable with the idea of relegating jade carving to craft status, even though it shouldn’t matter, so long as carving is fulfilling and enjoyable to me, or you, the carver.
So let’s ask the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (SOD), 1986 Edition to help us understand what we are dealing with. Among a plethora of definitions of “Art” are a number that generally reflect the sense I prefer: “1. gen. Skill as the result of knowledge and practice. … 4. spec. Technical or professional skill. … 5. The application of skill to subjects of taste, as poetry, music, etc. ; esp. in mod. use : Perfection of workmanship or execution as an object in itself …. 6. Skill applied to the arts of imitation and design, Painting, Architecture, etc.” Six is a bit wobbly but I like number five!
Let’s now turn to “Craft”: there are a broad range of meanings here too. The SOD reference begins with, “The transference to ‘skill, art, occupation’ is English only” [interesting!] and then goes on, “… 6. A calling requiring special skill and knowledge; esp. a manual art, a HANDICRAFT OE.” We’ll ignore the generally negative definitions referring to the dark arts, deception and cunning (think “crafty”) since consumer protection laws would never let us get away with any of that sort of thing these days! Instead we will bask in the glory of the association with “craftsman” (including the female gender here), surely a more prestigious tag than “artist” in many ways due to its bold assumption of excellence and usefulness?
So it is relatively unimportant what I think – the SOD has said it all. But if you look at the Chinese jades that were painstakingly carved using the most rudimentary of tools from around 7000 years ago, the beautiful early works dating back 2200 – 2400 years (the Warring States Period), or the superb jade suits that Chinese emperors were buried in up until 1800 years ago I think I can sell you on the idea that jade carving is art. I can’t imagine any emperor worth his salt who would be buried in a “craft suit” – this was art of the highest order, with carvers being held in the greatest esteem in the Chinese culture of the times.
And in Maori culture, would a mighty chieftain carry around a mere as a status symbol, and a very effective close-range weapon to boot, which was just a piece of craftwork? Or a revered toki poutangata (ceremonial adze) which had been passed down through the iwi or tribe for centuries? Not only were they symbols of power with very strong mana but they were also works of art made by the pre-eminent artists of their time!
And today, the works by Neil Hanna, Don Salt and Lyle Sopel, to name but a few, are mere craft? No way! They are clearly art too!
So maybe describing something as “craft” or “art” depends on the amount of planning and work that goes into its production? And there is another factor, age: even a simple piece created thousands of years ago was, I believe, novel and therefore art. Originality comes into the equation, and quite reasonably so in my view. So maybe modern copies can reasonably be described as craft then?
But an original idea, the planning and preparations for the piece, the drawings and clay modelling, and even the choice of stone are all important ingredients in qualifying an item as art. And let’s not forget the balance of an object – some pieces are clearly better than others.
Not that there is anything wrong with being a craftsman – it used to be a real compliment. And in this mass-produced, throw-away age that we live in, it is long overdue for craftsmanship to reclaim its position in the sun again.
So maybe we don’t sell our pieces for $10 million, but we strive with every piece we make to lift it to the level of art, and sometimes we achieve that. It’s great to be a jade carver!
Long live craft; long live art!
On this page I intend to add monthly updates on aspects of jade carving. I also plan to invite more experienced carvers to offer a "master-class" on a particular subject of their choice. With this I hope to enthuse both the novice and the expert in this ancient and beautiful art-form/craft. And comments are welcome!