Art in the public forum, expressions of creativity and imagination laid before the eyes of society in entirety is a contemporary phenomenon. Galleries, museums, building, houses possessing such works have until recently been a province for the elite, the wealthy, the privileged, the powerful. The production of such endeavors was simply controlled by the laws of commercial transaction rather than particular talent, a matter of employment, payment, and sponsorship of the monied to the skilled. Much as in the case of the great stone monuments of the renaissance and prior, those cathedrals, castles, magnificent palaces that mark the passing of time, the possessions that found their way onto the plinths or into the picture frames within such premise were the product of a majority whom served a minority in exchange for financial relief. As the guilds of masons supplied the workers to construct the buildings, to intricately carve reliefs into wall and column, the guilds of painters or sculptors would produce the wonders displayed within. The term artist was unknown, such laborers, for simple manual worker’s they were considered, were as artisans, creators of artifacts by manipulation of hand and tool, whether chisel, trowel, crayon or brush.
The artisan had no great need for talent, for imagination, untapped depths, they simply needed a willingness to work, to obey, to survive in order to fulfill their side of the apprentice contract. Skill requirements in the Guilds, in masters workshops varied enormously, from inductees who would on completion of their occupational training and many years of on job experience become the preeminent future exponents of their trade, to the dolts who would supply muscle, complete simple repeatable tasks or have a willingness to complete those onerous functions considered unworthy of their more accomplished colleagues attentions. For every master there were a hundred subordinates, for every Michelangelo a thousand carvers of near repetitious gargoyles around cathedral eaves.
The modern concept of the artist only raises its head within the last three centuries or so, individuals of means suddenly feeling the impulse to become creative, to do rather than simply admire, to put their personal interpretation upon the face of reality rather study that of a paid subordinate. The artist is a seeming biproduct of entrepreneurship. The starving artist is a very recent phenomenon, a product of the middle class or higher deciding to disavow birthright in the hopes of producing artifacts of sufficient value or significance to exchange for financial relief without serious introspection about ability, fame or popularity.
I like artisans, I find their drive, enthusiasm, downright honesty sublimely refreshing. Their simple realization that humanity needs to live to exist, that unless one is born with a proverbial spoon in the mouth it is necessary to produce to ensure survival in a environment totally dominated by commercialism.
Scribblers and photographers, collective nouns I hopefully can include myself within aspire to be artisans. Our products can include a degree of originality, of personal invention and original thought, but are also dependent on the use of learned skills and acquired knowledge in concert with the necessarily required tools of the trade. If the results are to have more than mere personal and private significance they require the assistance of another’s eyes, hopefully with the inclusion of some profit.
A diarist, a writer of copious journals would be categorized an amateur, however skilled, the product being purely for personal succor and enjoyment. Soon as their outpourings reach a market they become employed artisans as opposed to self-employed, self-sufficient ‘artists’.
Employees are tied to their relationship with product, the consumable that proffers the capacity to survive and hopefully flourish. Artisans are worker bees, artists are superfluous queen bees, wasteful of resource and investment.
Irregularities in the general relationship betwixt artisan and artist do occasionally arise, two cases in question would be transcribing and illuminating cloistered monks and embroiderers or seamstresses. In both these examples purely menial labor comes to be, through individual enterprise and flair, pieces of great intrinsic expression and value. The artisan element being for personal gain through solicitation, the additional artistic elements being not necessarily in support of the actual function.
Scholars were inclined to ignore the craftsmanship of the illuminators of church and other documents, oft more taken by the historical import of the pieces than their visual merit. Even when the quality of the illumination became a focus, the small variances, the cartoons, personal flourishes, the carefully concealed or overpainted in jokes were seen almost as graffiti, subversive errata rather than as the personal expressions, experiences, feelings of the artisans themselves, surreptitiously completed and decidedly unapproved by either seniors or employers.. The Norman ladies who completed the Bayeux tapestry included similar hidden gems in the needlework. Embroidery, parching and darns often included examples where ethereal creativity far outweighed immediate functionality, stirrings I would suggest of personal artistic expression, a flower that wouldn’t fully bloom till the age of revolution.