The Lister List

Origami is Pure Art?

In a message sent yesterday, Jan Fodor wrote:

"Would it be helpful if we start defining 'crafts'? It seems there is a lot of agreement that origami is an art as opposed to not an art but the distinction made was it is an art or is it "simply" a craft?"

I have been reluctant to get further involved in the discussion about "What is origami?" There may be practical uses for a definition (as, for instance, if someone set up a charitable trust for the promotion of origami: it would then be necessary for the purposes of deciding on the application of the trust to define for legal purposes just what the word "origami" meant. In fact the constitution of the British Origami Society contains a definition of "origami" for this very purpose. Other than that, I think the main use of trying to define the undefinable is in helping us to understand origami and all its ramifications and possiblilities. I know I, myself, have found the exercise very helpful in this respect..

When it comes to defining ART, we are on even more tricky ground. It is a matter on which I spilled several gallons of ink in Origami-L about two years ago and I am sure I have used up my ration of space on this particular topic.However, as Jan Fodor points out, a distinction has been made between art and craft and it is about this that I would like to say a little.

First, may I point out that the meanings of words are not absolute. Each one of us has his or her own perception of the meaning of a word that does not necesarily coincide with that of other individuals or even with common usage, which I take to be an average distilled from the mass of individuals.. As Humpty Dumpty said: "Whenever I use a word it means just what I intend it to mean, no more and no less". I may not be quoting Lewis Carroll verbatim here, but in a playful way he was trying to get across one of the fundamental features of language and communication and I am sure that here, as elsewhere, he was not so much speaking to children as to adults. Of course, dictionaries try to distill the essential meanings of words as they are found in common usage. But usages differ and dictionaries differ in their definitions. Words evolve and change their generally accepted meanings over the years. (A well- known example comes form the English Book of Common Prayer, where a well-known prayer begins: "Prevent us O Lord in all our doings with thy most gracious favour". Many people must have been puzzled by this, but it is simply that "prevent" is used in its old 16th Century meaning, derived from the Latin, of "go before".)

But I digress. My understanding of a CRAFT is that it is something that is MADE. We speak of the craft of pottery-making, blacksmithing or basketmaking., all of which refer to the making of tangible things. But crafted things need not be physical. We also speak of the writer's craft, the painter's craft and we can even speak of the craft of a great soprano. All are doing something or making something. In this respect origami is clearly a craft.

On the other hand I perceive ART to be something added to what is made by the craftsman, who thereby also becomes an artist. I planned this letter before I read Michael LaFosse's excellent contribution this morning. He takes words from my mouth and puts it very well when it he writes: "I believe that art is the unique contribution that any individual can give to their chosen craft".

Adding to this my own ideas, I consider that another word for the adding of an individual artist's unique contribution is CREATION and it is creation (in a sense much deeper than mere making or manufacture) that distinguishes art.

Art has traditionally been considered to be something having beauty. But this is not necessariy so and our concepts of art and of beauty must be kept quite distinct. A work of art may be beautiful, but it may equally be frightening, ugly or painful. It can still speak the truth. Much as we may prefer art to be beautiful, it is not only beauty that speaks to us and which conveys a unique message from the artist to the spectator or listener.

I may add in parentheses that some people have even tried to redfine "beauty" to include ugliness, but I think that that is going too far and deprives the word, beauty, of any real meaning. Certainly it takes it out of the field of common usage. It's rather like including paper sculpture, paper cutting, balloon sculpture and the folding of mountains in the definition of "origami".

But the fact that something crafted may also be art does not thereby make it great or even good art. it is a matter of degree and great art is ultimately beyond definition. Personal, I doubt if any origami creation is or is likely ever to be great art on the level of Shakespeare, Bach or Leonardo, but this is not to imply that it could not possibly be.

To summarise, if you fold in a routine way, merely copying a model, it is craft but it is probaly not art. If you fold carefully and try to make your model something which other people will admire it may well be art as well as craft. If you create a new model and try to encompass with inn your model and imression of the lively form of an animal and its true spirit, it will certainly be craft and art . Occasionally origami may aspire to being great art. If it does, it is still a craft.


David Lister Grimsby, England.

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