Decoupling Art From The Artisan

Our era of human digitization (homo-digitalis?) is rapidly changing the way we do many things which we might ordinarily view as being unchanging.  An example is the way that we create tangible “objects of art”.


For most of our history, Art (Latin for “craft”) has implicitly required a degree of physical skill and dexterity at the end of a creative process. An example of the process might be:

  • Perceiving and interpreting the world around us – as it was, as it is and as it could be
  • Conceiving a “thing” to be created in our minds eye
  • Choosing a medium – oils, watercolours, wood, stone, silver, glass
  • Crafting with hands and tools (chisel, spray-can, paintbrush, toothbrush etc) – i.e. Using learned and gifted artisanal skills to make the conceptual become tangible.

Note: this classification obviously has no academic root, I’ve just created it to illustrate a point. If you have any knowledge of art theory please don’t cringe!

By necessity, early “art” required manual dexterity and was artisan.  Whether creating a painting of a buffalo or pharaoh; or crafting a shell necklace or china vase; or engraving a copper Idol or brass armor.

Photography, started muddling this process. Pin hole cameras enabled sketch portrait artists to better mirror ‘reality” by tracing the outline of a sitting subject.


Camera obscura Tischapparat 1769 kl

Chemical photography took this further with “fixed” silver replacing oil-on-a-brush to create a facsimile of the projected image. In the process the camera became both a tool for  conceiving as well as a tool to craft the “art” from the medium. The completed work, the permanent image, still required artisan skill to finish it, with hands-on exposing, developing, editing and cropping of the completed image.  Skilled manual manipulation of chemicals and photographic paper being the physical medium of creation.

Self portait darkroom1

Next, with digital photography, images are displayed on a digital screen on the camera as soon as they’re taken. They’re then edited in digital format and can be transported electronically to any digital printer in the world before becoming tangible, if we ever need them to be that is (how many gigabytes of holiday snaps have you already accumulated?).

Perhaps more profound is the impact that these new artistic tools have on our perception of the world – which then feeds and influences our creativity.  We now carry digital camera everywhere we go – giving us a pictorial record of our lives, which would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. In the last few years, Social Media has now brought us everyone else’s lives in pictures (although maybe only the best ones).

None of this is to say that the creative process is diminished, far from it. Simply that our hands-on relationship with the media is now about manipulation of pixels using clicks and touch screens. Perception, conception and creation is now digital and the mucky bit – working with atoms and molecules – is becoming mechanised.  This is a broad theme of the digital era (who hand rivets car bodies anymore?) and it’s an ongoing process.

Beyond photography, 3D printing now lets us “outsource” the artesanal process of creating 3D objects.


A couple of days ago my 8 year old daughter asked me to download 123D Sculpt. It’s an iPad app and it, along with a sister app called 123D Creature (above), enable digital “sculpting” and painting of a 3D shape. Once created, the digital shape can be 3D printed and mailed to you (what happened to modeling clay!?).

Of course, this doesn’t replace existing artistic media, at least not immediately, but it’s a fantastic example of how our lives are changing in steady, almost unnoticeable, increments.  As we become increasingly entangled with our digital devices, our current reliance on keyboards and mice to manually manipulate pixels to “create” may soon seem quaintly artesanal (don’t be surprised to see a brief hipster revival of “keyboard creative” cool in 20 years or so).

Finally, removing the “artisan” element also makes it far easier for most of us to make the leap from the conception of an idea to creating a tangible “thing” that can be shared, perceived and hopefully understood by others. Purists might see this as a dumbing down of art but it can also be argued that these advances actually make the creative process far more accessible and egalitarian.  As the rest of the world becomes connected this decade, making ideas easier to share must surely be a good thing?


Photo credits:,,,,

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