Art Versus Science – and Bread

Posted by Mike

I’ve never quite clearly gotten the distinction that is often suggested when a reference is made to a skill being more art rather than science. I think I get the general idea: that science relates to a procedure that has been developed through rigorous experimentation and that once obtained has been clearly described and passed on as a well-defined set of steps; whereas when art is predominant the talent lies in the ability of the individual practitioner and either cannot be taught and passed on to others or can only be replicated in a sketchy manner, which would be lacking the subtleties and finesse of the master practitioner.  Does that fit with the way you see it?

Certainly a great deal of skill is dependent upon natural proclivities, learning, experience, and repetition or practice. When I drive to work daily I sometimes marvel at the ability of hundreds of people within my field of vision, driving like me, and who are able to navigate adequately to keep from ramming their cars into others and causing a giant mess. NY 300 in Town of Newburgh, NY.jpgDriving is clearly a skill that requires a lot of practice to perform well, but something that most anyone can do reasonably adequately without getting into trouble. I guess here we’re talking about a normative skill, something that doesn’t require the exactitude of science, but that also doesn’t demand the unique expressiveness of art.

Maybe that’s it – that art relates to the personal expression of an individual, reflecting his or her inner life and feelings as applied to a medium of expression within the context of the subject chosen by the artist.  There’s a distinction too that is easier to grasp, between art and craft, although it may be that there is considerable fuzziness and overlap between the two. The essential aspect of art is that it is the personal expression of the artist, reflecting his or her inner life – with such expression perceived by the viewer/perceiver of the art as beautiful. You can have art that reflects terribly gruesome aspects of life (e.g., The Scream by Edvard Munch), but beautiful in this instance doesn’t refer to ideal attractiveness, but to “what stirs a heightened response of the senses and of the mind on its highest level” [ American Heritage Dictionary].

Craft and craftspersons have tended never to receive enough credit for their work. The essential aspect of craft is that what is produced is functional and that it is produced by hand, as opposed to mass produced. If the craftsperson is himself/herself the designer and if the design is individualized and unique in some way and reflects beauty in the eye of the beholder, it seems to me that we can call the product art. If the product is mass produced, we don’t have craft production, but may very likely have art in the design. And let us not neglect to say that the ability to provide multiple copies of great art enables it to be shared by many who would otherwise not be so graced. A purist might say that a copy never possesses that certain “je ne sais quoi” of the artist.

Would you say that the Doric columns and the friezes on the Parthenon were carved by craftsmen or artists? Obviously the columns required one kind of skill and the friezes required another.Partenon04.JPG Also, we know that there were people we would now call architects or engineers that designed the structure, and clearly the friezes were designed by artists, though no one would deny that art was involved in the overall design of the structure. Were the craftsmen who carved the friezes artists in their own right? Obviously we don’t know; but we can conclude that the people who did the stonework were all highly skilled, working from detailed designs, and likely not able to individualize their products using their own imagination or creativity, as was seen in some of the religious sculpture adorning cathedrals in the middle ages.

I’ve been cooking bread for four or five years now. Bread making is generally not thought of as an art or a craft, but I’ve been rethinking the issue after reading The Village Baker by Joe Ortiz [1993, Ten Speed Press]. Mama Mia! There’s more to bread making than I would have thought possible! It’s clearly a craft with artistic aspects, and to do it well requires great skill. I became intimidated on the first page, and must confess that I remain, after working at bread making desultorily for several years, a rank beginner. That’s part of the problem, of course – I mean the desultoriness. I think I’m beginning to see (and I’m not learning this just from bread making) that to really become good at anything, what is required most of all is practice, practice, practice – so much so that at some point, one begins to function on automatic. What that means is that the neurological and muscular responses are so well learned that they are managed at a subconscious level. I suspect that though we are unaware of it, virtually all of our well learned activities are controlled and directed at a subconscious level. Our awareness is literally the very tip of the iceberg of mental processing.

The term culinary arts does seem appropriate. Working with and preparing food is a craft, because its products are functional. It’s an art because good food preparation requires personal expression, and though it can be taught, there remains a degree of “je ne sais quoi,” that certain something that comes from the soul of the practitioner.

Okay, I have to admit it: My bread never rises like my daughter-in-law’s does. Could it be that it’s her “je ne sais quoi”?




Filed under Art, arts and crafts

3 responses to “Art Versus Science – and Bread

  1. Jenny

    It never rises like your daughter-in-laws because you use old yeast. I made my third loaf yesterday and it rose quite nicely with new yeast.

    That said, I see baking as more science than art. You need to understand or perfect the scientific qualities before you can adequately experiment artistically.

  2. A good definition of what makes art, art: practice, practice, practice.

    I will make sure my students hear this often as we explore the art of drama. Thanks, Mike!

  3. Mike Zelenka

    It’s nice to know that there’s another reader! Thanks for your comments. I’ve been taking a break from writing for the past month.

    Good to see you and Linda and Bethany. As you know we spent 2 nights with your mother. She seems to be doing well.

    Linda and I cleaned out her storage area: got rid of much stuff; it’s clean and usable now.



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