Language, like human beings, is deceptive, as it keeps on shifting. A word exists in its actual, original and initial form, yet is understood in a new way after some passage of time. And not only in later periods, but in case of each reader, listener and speaker, a word may mean something different. Words that we still use since the age of Shakespeare, do sound and spell the same, but their connotations change – often in a contradictory shade.
‘Art’ as understood today, was never used in that sense during Renaissance or before. This term “began to take on its modern meaning in the eighteenth century: an original creation, produced by an individual gifted with genius” (Mary Anne Staniszewski). One can imagine in earlier epochs, when an extraordinary chef, a brilliant cobbler, a competent carpenter, an excellent goldsmith, a talented tailor – all good in their art produced their goods for the patron and public. Its only in modern times, that the makers of ‘non-functional’ objects started to enjoy a status elevated than those who still produce pieces for practical purpose. Now the creator of a painting, sculpture, a print, a drawing was ranked higher than the producer of pottery, woodwork, rugs, jewellery, toys etc. – classified as artisan.
His fate was further declined with the invent of machinery and industrial revolution. Now a factory could produce a perfect, and less expensive item in great numbers in a few minutes, costing far less than anything fabricated with hands. So the plight of artisan was sealed. If on the one hand by the superior position of ‘artists’, at other due to popularity, accessibility and affordability of machine made objects. Many artisans abandoned their age-old professions to become factory workers or started earning their living through other means.
In the subcontinent, artisans were considered as the lowly of the low. Often called kammis, a term that derogatorily denotes artisans being inferior – but in reality, means ‘someone who works’! The artisans were less paid, not respected and often exploited. The biggest form of humiliation is that the maker of a beautiful carving on a chair, weavers of the tree of life on a carpet, painter of arabesque on a porcelain pot, and inscriber of elegant holy script on a piece of paper, all are ‘nameless’. Their creations do not include identity of the makers. (Not different from the paintings of pre-Renaissance, miniature paintings in India, and African statues).
One hopes that a time will come when every work of art would be acknowledged with the name of its creator, so the distance or difference between art and craft, artist and artisan be bridged. The present issue of Art Now Pakistan attempts to investigate this separation by focusing on the ‘Art of Artisans’, because as Jean Beaudillard observes in The Conspiracy of Art that what we consider today as art was not made as art in past, and he wonders how future would perceive all that which is made as art today!
But who bothers how one would be remembered in distant future, because we live in present; one feels the distinction between artist and artisan – is merely of a few letters. In actuality both these roles are transforming with the course of time, and probably in future there may not be a differentiation or demarcation between artist and artisan. A situation that echoes the word of Syed Hussein Nasr, who came to National College of Arts several years ago and spoke about the line between artist and artisan. The Iranian philosopher praised Sistine Chapel, but for him, according to Muslim (or any traditional) society/aesthetics making a beautiful fork is more important than painting the ceiling of a church in Rome. Calculate how many visit Vatican, compared to those who use a fork.
Perhaps being online is like forging the fork that reaches to everyone, everywhere!