Writing: Art, Craft, or Entertainment?

Now, come on. It’s an Aston Martin. That’s art.

I’m going to offer a broad definition of art, and then dismantle it: Art is the manipulation of sound, image, words, or objects for the purpose of human expression.

In this context, even the non-functional elements of automobile design, such as the contours of a sports car, are art, while the purely functional parts – hoses and sparkplugs, for example – are not. A chimpanzee throwing paint at a canvas is not art, it is play, because (so far as we know) expression through object manipulation is beyond the scope of a chimpanzee’s understanding or intent.

But what about human intent? My definition starts to break down when we examine art from a perspective of intent.

Companies hire graphic artists to design packaging. The artist who designs a box of Lucky Charms intends for the result to be eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing to shoppers. She manipulates colors, shapes, and figures to create that box, using specialized knowledge of art techniques. But, in the end, it’s still a box of breakfast cereal. I’d say she’s a craftsperson, not an artist, at least when she’s getting a pay check from General Mills.

On the other hand, Michelangelo Buonarroti is rightfully considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, artists of all time. He painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of course, in addition to sculpting the David and designing the dome for St. Peter’s in Rome.

Yeah, on commission.

The world would not have any of those priceless treasures if 16th century popes and wealthy merchants didn’t have all kinds of florins to burn (melt?).  Sure, they were Michelangelo’s designs (duh), but he didn’t have carte blanche when it came to subject matter. It wasn’t until the era of modern art that artists routinely manipulated objects for the sake of art itself.

That’s right, Michelangelo was merely a craftsman on par with the cereal box designers of today. If you think I actually believe that, you may skip to the comments section now and begin your irrational ranting…

If only they had some lucky stars and green clovers.

Now that we have those weirdoes out of the way, I admit that I said what I said about Mr. Buonarotti to make a point. It’s hard to define art unless it’s your art and you are doing the defining.

So do you view your writing as art, craft, or entertainment? I suspect most of us would view taking a freelance assignment or writing in a corporate setting to be craft, since we aren’t choosing the subject matter and must conform to strict word counts and style guidelines determined by others. There is nothing wrong with being a craftsperson.

How about fiction, poetry, essay, and personal non-fiction, though? Or blogging, for that matter?

I view what I do as entertainment. To entertain well, I must employ some degree of refined craftsmanship, so an element of craft is present. But not art. In my entire writing life, I have yet to create a piece of art.

When working on a fiction project, I love coming up with a poetic flourish or a clever construction. But as an entertainer, not as an artist. I want people who read my stories and this blog, above all else, to be entertained. That’s my intent.

I’ve never, for one moment, worked on a story that I intended to keep to myself. I’m writing to get published, so other people can laugh, be scared, cry, feel disturbed, or experience some other emotion from reading the words I’ve manipulated. Most of the time, when I get to the end of the first draft, I deem it to be garbage and discard it as a failure. Sometimes, I think it’s good, revise it, and send it out. Then, if I start getting rejections, I deem it a failure. That story simple isn’t good enough to entertain. Whether it means something personal to me is irrelevant.

So what about you? Are you an artist, a craftsperson, or an entertainer? In your answer, feel free to tell me my assessment is all wrong and come up with your own. I won’t mind. Entertainers need to have a thick skin.

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12 responses to “Writing: Art, Craft, or Entertainment?

  • Michelle Proulx

    I’m definitely like you — an entertainer. When I think of books that qualify as “art”, it’s always the classics — The Odyssey, Candide, etc. Today’s YA fiction (my current genre of choice) isn’t art, it’s pure entertainment. And that’s fine! Why shouldn’t we write to entertain? If we can both create beautiful art and entertain at the same time, it’s just a bonus 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      I’m not going to put pressure on myself to be brilliant, because I’ll never be a Steinbeck or a Picasso. If I were on that level of artistry, I would have found out longbefore now.

      So I’ll just aim to tell a good story with the right words and leave it at that.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I’ve always considered myself an artist – even as far back as in my teen years. Maybe this is just me taking myself too seriously, but in my writing, no matter how entertaining it may be, I’m always trying to dig a bit deeper, exploring something, or experimenting with something, or teaching something about human nature. To me, art is nothing if not a representational study of humanity, and anything that ventures along those avenues – again, no matter how entertaining or how subjective – deserves to be called art.

    • ericjbaker

      I get the feeling that you would write even if no one else were around to read it, and you’d still put the same level of dedication into it. I can tell from your blog that you really understand the [art/craft/enterainment medium] as well.

      I doubt our work would be on the same shelf at the bookstore, but I do hope are respective works are in the same bookstore someday.

      • Janna G. Noelle

        I think the main reason our books wouldn’t be on the same shelf is because I don’t have any zombies in mine. (I do have at least one witch, though.) 🙂

        I do get what you’re saying about art/craft/entertainment, but at the same time, I don’t want to use the word “art” too reverentially. I feel that opens up the whole literary vs. genre debate, which I never find particularly helpful, or even useful.

        Philosophically, I think that all writing is art: it’s creating something out of nothing through inspiration. Writers may have certain aims for the work – to entertain the masses; to touch people on a spiritual level – but ultimately, no one has any control over how their work will impact or not impact someone else. I may read a classic novel and be left cold by it. Someone else might read something like Twilight and consider it a revelation. To each their own.

        I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, for me, art isn’t something that’s “out there”; it’s in all of us, whether we realize it or not.

        • ericjbaker

          You bring up an interesting point from a general communication standpoint. Whatever we intend to say, the interpretation of the listener (or reader in our case) is equally valid. Some say meaning belongs entirely to the receiver and is no longer the domain of the sender once it has been sent.

          In that case, I welcome anyone to consider my writing to be art, even if I don’t.

  • nrhatch

    Sometimes I write to entertain.
    Sometimes to educate.
    Sometimes to express existential angst.

    It’s all good.
    No rules. Just write.

    Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    Dear Grammar Dude,did you find your definition of Art in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary?
    …Or did you piece this definition together

    from reading the backs of sugar packets?

    “Art is the manipulation of sound, image, words, or

    objects for the purpose of human expression.”

    Last Monday I prayed for a

    Red 323-horsepower V6 Corvette Roadster
    My prayer was answered on Tuesday,”No,” said

    God.

    Tuesday…

    Where is my fucking Red 323-horsepower V6 Corvette Roadster?

    I did this with…
    the manipulation of sound (Clapping)
    the manipulation of image (Chalking a

    frowny-face emoticon on the sidewalk)
    the manipulation of words(Writing Redrum,Redrum on my chest with red lipstick)
    the manipulation of objects (Juggling 5 Bick Lighters)
    ..All for the purpose of my human expression

    Now is this by definition Art? If so, I

    sincerely apologize for doubting your

    definition.
    Still your biggest fan.Bryan Edmondson
    Bryan Edmondson (Inmate #416392), Cell Block C,Cage #21,
    Huntsville Prison
    Huntsville, TX 47892

  • K. L. Wightman

    I think of myself as a craftsperson: tinkering with the sentence arrangements, sweating over which word is best to write, clocking in long hours to get the job done. And when the project is done, it’s a masterpiece that hangs on a blog wall or poised nicely on a bookshelf. The product is proof that I used my mind to create a good that satisfies the demand of beauty and entertainment in someone’s life.

    So I guess that makes me an artist and an entertainer as well…

    Nice blog post! It’s always a joy to read an article by someone willing to question and challenge the status quo of writing.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective. I’m always interested to hear what other WordPress bloggers have to say on the subject of writing, which is why bring up these kinds of topics. I like to think we’re a pretty sharp bunch.

      I also welcome being put in my place by someone with better insights, so feel free to question or challenge!

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