Art & Craft

What has engineering in common with art and craft?

All three are forms of making. Of course understanding and creating a work of art is complex and a constant topic of discussion. A perennial question is what is good and bad art? For an answer we tend to rely on those who profess to know. As Grayson Perry said in his 2013 BBC Reith Lectures ‘   Who validates (art)? A cast of characters….in this validation chorus….artists, teachers, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, the media, even the public maybe…they form…..this lovely consensus around what is good art’.

Art objects speak to us in ways that functional objects do not. We feel that art objects are especially unique – the work of a single talented and inspired individual. They have rarity value. We usually assume that the artist has some kind of expressive purpose – to communicate some kind of message, however subliminal,  intuitive or enigmatic. The message may be a feeling, an emotion or expression of sheer beauty, a religious act of devotion or a political or social comment. Art illuminates us and enriches our emotional experiences.

Functional art has a dual purpose – art and utility. It overlaps with craft – of course the boundaries between all forms of making are never clear cut.

Functional form is necessary but not sufficient for functional objects. We can try to design them to be art objects as well. Think of the sleek beauty of a Ferrari or Aston Martin, the elegance of an iPhone, the awe of a cathedral and the impressive grandeur of the Millau Viaduct in France. Some functional objects are so simple that we can read them easily and hence they are effectively created in the same way as art objects.

People love to create delightful and interesting things – sometimes individually sometimes in groups, sometimes to make a living. They do it for enjoyment, fun or self-expression; to feel valued, fulfilled; to make something beautiful or to meet a practical need, to learn or to solve a problem or simply as a job. Many of us cook, garden, take photographs, paint, carve or sculpt, make music, dance, speak in public, entertain, write or follow some other hobby or craft. Craft occupations include engineering skills such bricklaying, plumbing, electrical wiring, woodworking, welding and steel fixing. Journeyman and apprentices work for others and are usually working to someone else’s design choices.

Engineering making is change making done deliberately to configure flows of energy to achieve a desired outcome or purpose.  Before the Renaissance (14th-17th century) there was no scientific notion of energy and almost no distinction between change making by artisans through craft, art, architecture or engineering. It is surprising to most of us to learn that the genius artists of the Renaissance like Leonardo and Michelangelo were, as they were training, considered to be artisans. Since the Renaissance these disciplines have diverged to become quite distinct and we have learned to appreciate the genius of Michelangelo and others but also the unfortunate dichotomy between architecture and engineering.

To keep a firm grasp of what modern engineers do, hold in your mind the Latin root of the word engineer ingeniarius – meaning someone who is ingenious in solving practical problems. The creative thinking of inventive design followed up by the innovative making of solutions.

Directly as a result of the estrangement of engineering from art and architecture most people have come to regard engineering as being about making things and fixing them when they don’t work. Furthermore the things that engineers create – the technologies – are often felt to be value neutral, cold, inhuman and without human expression or compassion. Consequently it is rare for people to recognise that engineering, like all forms of making, is about being human.