Thursday, January 20, 2011

More on Craft... and a Bit of a Cheat

My post from yesterday about the Top Chef: All Stars Quickfire Challenge featuring Justo Thomas spilled over into a conversation at Pharyngula, and since I'm never one to let my mindless natteringsbrilliant ruminations go to waste, I thought I'd shamelessly recycleadapt what I wrote there for a follow-on post here.

A friend wondered if there was more to Thomas' story than the show hinted at, since she thought it was more a matter of highly developed skill than craft, which she thought of as more creative. I said it was possible we were working from slightly different definitions of craft (subtle differences in working definitions are frequent there), but in any case, yeah, there was much more to Bourdain's description than you got on the show.

What I called craft involves a great deal of creativity, but it's more of a functional, problem-solving kind of creativity that what I associate with art. But whether you call it craft or merely (merely?) skill, I'm in awe of what Bourdain described.

Pressed for details — perhaps an anecdote from the book — I had to admit that I actually "read" it on audio, and while Bourdain is one of the authors whose reading/speaking style definitely makes the audiobook a value-added experience, one thing about audio is that it's hard to just grab the book and look up a specific passage.

But I had actually been thinking about this distinction between skill, craft, and art. The short answer is that I see craft as a kind of creative mastery of skills, and art as the creative expression of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic ideas. In my mind, you can be an artist without being an accomplished craftsperson, and vice versa.

Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau, for instance, was always an artist (assuming you agree with me that satirical cartooning is within the realm of art), but in the middle of his career he made a conscious effort to improve his craft, when he took a year's sabbatical to work on his drawing.

In the case of Justo Thomas, I can remember one item: In Medium Raw, Bourdain notices that Thomas doesn't sharpen his knives as obsessively as many chefs, and asks him about it. Thomas says that if the knives are too sharp, they'll cut through soft fish bones without him being able to feel it, and thus bones will evade his notice and end up in the portioned fish. He has a very specific level of sharpness he maintains that's perfectly matched to the task he's performing. Now that might be simply a matter of skill... but to me, it's a level of mastery that transcends mere skills competence, a kind of zen genius for the task at hand. OTOH, no matter how perfect his output is, it's still just portions of fish, not Guernica.


  1. I lean towards craft rather than art. Art expresses thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a way that someone else may never have done before or again. Craft is... exactly the way you described it. Either requires developing skills, which are the tools to make either good art or good craft.

  2. Was he also the one who said that if the knife is too sharp, you can cut yourself without realizing it?