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Is Woodcarving Art or Craft?

This is an old and unresolved question that has been debated mightly on the various woodcaver mail lists. Bob Kaehr initiated such a discussion a few years back and noted recently;

The question I posed was, "Is woodcarving art or craft?" When all was said and done, there was a variance of opinion, but most sided with art. A lot was based on the, "I knows it when I sees it.' mentality.

The debate, of course, is still unresolved. Meanwhile, Bob Kaehr offers his take on the issue in A Cut Above the Average.

A Cut Above the Average: What Is Art?
By Bob Kaehr


Chipping away, Chipping away, Chipping Away.
Chips fly here; chips fly there, all throughout the day.
When he started, there was a wedge of walnut wood.
When he finished he hoped there was something good.

The knives were keen; they were shiny and sharp.
"Could this be worthy," the artist begins to carp.
To call this art, that taken from the whittler's craft,
Made me wonder if craft is art, and then I laughed.

But I looked at the piece and it made me smile
This once lump of wood now began to beguile.
As I looked upon its finer points, I began to wonder:
This chip was different; the thought rolled like thunder.

Did the whittler put it there, crafted intentionally?
Was his intention to catch my attention conventionally?
Or did he try to speak to me through the subtleties,
A chip here, a chip there, wading through difficulties?

Is art craft or is it all only in the eye of the beholder?
Does the definition linger for want of something bolder?
Perhaps the feeling or the technique is the question.
Perhaps the reality is found in the final impression.

Leo Tolstoy defined art as he saw it though his vision,
As a work that elevates the best to which man has risen.
But the work in walnut was a character with style,
An old miner with pick and shovel and crooked smile.

Well, the miner couldn't be finer in this viewer's look.
Is it art, this piece of wood; the pick, the pan, what's the hook?
What makes this old fellow, leathery though he be, worthwhile?
Yes, it's art; maybe it was the wrinkle in his weatherworn smile.

Bob Kaehr is a carver and the Director of Library Services at Huntington College, Huntington, IN. You may email Bob at rkaehr@huntington.edu.

© Robert Kaehr 2000