The Art of Anything

Art is a complicated word pretty much any way that we try to slice it. In this post I want to talk about a specific usage of the word “art” that I have recently come to reconsider, or perhaps more accurately, consider carefully for the first time.

The “art” of accounting, the “art” of basketball, zen and the “art” of motorcycle repair…we have a use for this word which is applied when we want to talk about the execution of a trade or skill that is not normally regarded as creative or artistic.

This usage might be defined like this: “the skillful execution of a trade which integrates more than simply successful application of technical knowledge” or perhaps more poetically “the execution of a skill which makes use of internalized knowledge in a way that is not perceptible to the outside observer”. These definitions will give us a starting point, but I don’t think they quite include what I am looking for.

Talking about the “art” of a trade seems to imply that the tradesmen is making judgments based on a history of internalized knowledge. It speaks to an application of skill that is not based solely on measurable data. The implication is that not just anyone with the proper skills could solve the problem in the same way, or with the same solution. Given two practitioners of a certain skill who are presented with the same problem to solve, we think of the one who uses either their long experience with previous encounters, or one who is able to intuit novel solutions, as the one who raises the skill to that of an “art”.

This word came back to my attention through the clever use of abstraction in a conversation between two educators working across the borders of medical education and museum education at the University of Rochester. Part of the challenge that spurred this conversation was around the diminishing “art” of bedside manner. The history of medical education and the issues surrounding it have been wonderfully summarized and presented at the link below, along with the developmental offspring from their conversation.

Specific to the conversation was their description of how bedside manner used to be taught, especially in the nineteenth century, before the advances of science brought many more metrics and observations to bear on the practice. The education used to be comprised solely of time spent shadowing other medical practitioners who had to carefully observe their patients at the bedside. They had no tools to measure blood pressure, oxygenation, acidity or the like. What they did have were their own powers of observation, and the backlog in their minds of patients and treatments that they had encountered before. As medical science began to produce reams of quantifiable data about a patient, the doctor’s education began to shift away from personal observation of the patients themselves. Instead of spending many hours observing and interacting with patients, doctors were spending more time learning how to analyze data.

The “art” of medical practice seems to be strongly linked to this internalization of information through careful observation. This way of talking about the “art” of any trade rings very true for me, and pulled me in to writing this article. Perhaps the core foundation of any trade being executed as an “art” is the application of personal knowledge supported by close observation of the technical issue at hand. This sort of “art” isn’t about creativity in the way that we traditionally think about it. It certainly isn’t about aesthetics, or the outward appearance of the activity. It seems to be about time and experience, coupled with attentive presence of mind in execution.

Maybe we could say: “the application of lived knowledge as adapted to a unique scenario”.

This makes sense in many cases, and certainly passes a basic sniff test when we think about why we use the word in contexts for technical trades. After all, we would never say that a robot arm in a factory is applying the “art” of welding car doors on. We might, however, use just that phrase when dealing with a human whose work is to refurbish antique vehicles. In one case the correct technical application is enough. In the other, an individual is using their perception and experience to successfully apply their technical skills to a unique problem.

Okay, we may have something of a definition, and we may have outlined how this terms is being used, but why is that important?

Well, what happens when we turn the conversation around again? What does it mean to think about the “art” of fine art? The “art” of painting, or sculpture or modern dance? Perhaps it is simply a redundancy, or perhaps it relates to a mindset undertaken in the production of the work. Certainly, by the definition above, it simply means creating the work mindfully using ones gained experience. That, however, doesn’t capture the use of the word “unique” in the definition. This is a key piece for me. To use ones gathered knowledge and skills in the solution of a unique (read perhaps ‘new’ or ‘novel’) solution, then we are into territory where one is pushing the limits of what they have done before. It isn’t enough, in this definition, to simply use one’s experience and skills to churn out paintings, or sculptures, or whatever the chosen medium might be. There must be an application of skills towards something untested. It isn’t in this sense “art” if it isn’t challenging and it isn’t “art” if it doesn’t provide opportunities to grow and develop.

There may be a tendency here for people to try and relate this to the war over labels between what is art and what is craft. It might be tempting to say that this idea is exactly where the line is drawn between the two, and that those who create crafts are merely churning out works that do not meet these criteria. I would challenge this line of thinking immediately. Indeed, of the many artists I have seen who are involved in craft, they are often most decidedly challenging themselves with a very specific goal aimed at pushing the limits of their skills. Many craftspeople undertake projects solely because of the novelty and the challenge. Partially this is due to the linkage between crafts and “hobbies”. Many people take on a hobby with the specific intention of honing or learning a skill and are therefore involved in the definition I have set out that is executing “artfully”.

Where does this leave the traditional artists? Certainly many are working with the same diligence and focus, and truly executing their work “artfully”. It seems to me that there are many, many more than might like to admit it, who are trapped in an awkward and negative cycle with their art. Many artists work within their comfort zones, rather than pushing them. Many create what they think others want, whether to gain likes and attention, or to mimic the popular styles of the moment. Many have found something that seems to work and are simply rehashing the idea over and over again with slightly different trappings. This isn’t a situation that is unique to the fine arts by any stretch, but I do think that many artists are caught up in a particularly interesting conundrum, partially accounted for by the terminology within which they work.

The use of the word art as both process and product has perhaps diminished the particular qualities of each usage. Anything that is labeled as an object of art broadens, and perhaps makes shallower, the total pool of potential art. Famously this includes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as well as a mass produced urinal and works of art including human feces. I am not interested in debating the use of the word as it accounts for the end product. I do think, however, that there is something very interesting that happens as we talk about the use of the word as it pertains to the act of creation, the process of working “artfully”. Again, this usage does not rely upon an outcome, and the result of working “artfully” does not necessarily create a work of art.

What does it do for us to draw out the process of working “artfully” as its own defined process? How does it help anyone to create a more crystalized definition for language that has been traditionally used as a flavor-adding descriptor?

If we focus only on working with “art” or “artfully”, then we are suddenly talking about entire spheres of activity across all walks of life, social situations and industries. Indeed, suddenly we are talking about nearly any human activity. It is a fundamental shift that moves the focus from result to process. It liberates the discussion of art and makes it accessible for anyone to partake in. What would it mean for those who currently think that they are not in creative positions to think about the “art” of their jobs? If anything can be done in a manner which encourages us to engage at a deeper level, then we might reframe our thinking about many other aspects which are related.

What sort of education changes might be required in order to help children prepare for discovering the sorts of things that they find engaging? What sort of value changes would occur if we came to expect that someone would approach their work in an “artful” manner? Success might be regulated on employment happiness and fit, rather than output.

I know from my time in the corporate world, that those who were engaged and interested in their jobs did not need outside motivation in order to perform. What they needed was support so that they could pursue their jobs in the ways that they wanted to. Sometimes I could give perspective, and help them to find different ways to think about how their skills fit into the structure, but I could never force them to become more engaged. In fact, some of the most talented people I met were the ones who moved on to other fields. Often, this was a personal choice, it was an end result of bad fit between what engaged them, and the work that they happened to be doing. Rather than try to break people like this down so that they will fit into the mold, I can imagine companies actively working to shift talent around internally and even encouraging employees to seek elsewhere, with transitional support.

What would this mean for the people who currently call themselves artists, if suddenly everyone began to seek the “art” in their own industry? I imagine it might be liberating. Unlike those who are in more standardized industries, the artist would be limited only in their own curiosity. Artists might feel more comfortable breaking out of their self prescribed medium in order to fully follow their internal compass, without fear that they are straying too far from the center of “fine art”. Those who were interested in mass manufacturing and consumer work would be able to enjoy knowing the process that the process they follow is as fulfilling as sales of the end result.

These things can, of course, the true no matter what labels we use. The words themselves are not revolutionary enough that a shift would move the world. What is important is to remember that our concepts, beyond the words, need not be solidified into the forms in which they currently exist. It is difficult to shake up the current shape of our thoughts.

I offer this thought experiment as a way to look back at something we think we know in order to gain a new perspective.

As one final thought, I find it especially poignant that shifting the focus from output to process is something that resonates very well with many mindfulness traditions, including Buddhism and Taoism. Working “artfully”, no matter what the activity, is the way of the sage. To be able to find engagement and the challenge of growth no matter what one is doing, whether that be sweeping the floor or coding databases, is the way to finding value and center purposefulness in one’s life. If we were all able to engage with our work and activities artfully it would have much more profound implications for how we structure the values within which we live our lives.