Thoughts on the Differences Between Art and Craft

by Roger Bourke White, Jr., copyright Sep 09


What I am presenting to you now is the application of Roger's Thinking Stack Model to the question of the difference between Arts and Crafts.

I will give you some background in the Thinking Stack Model first, then apply it to the concept of artwork versus craftwork, in general, and finally to artwork and craftwork in the acting field in particular.


Thinking processes -- from Instinctive to Adaptive

If thinking is defined as adapting one's life processes to one's surroundings, then all organisms think. Single cell bacteria are thinking when they move toward a food source, and when they pick the right digesting enzymes to produce once they get to it. Humans are thinking when they decide what job to take, when they walk, and when they decide what to say back to a person who says, "Good morning." to them.

Thinking is complex.

One simple, useful way of looking at thinking processes is that all thinking falls on a scale ranging from "instinctive thinking" at one end, to "adaptive thinking" at the other -- terms I will now define.

Instinctive thinking

When many generations of an organism face a similar circumstance, the genes of the surviving sons and daughters try to solve dealing with the circumstance in better and better ways. Part of the solution is finding better ways to organize thinking. If thinking about a circumstance can happen quickly, this will help the organism survive from one generation to the next.

One way to make thinking faster is to "hardwire" the brain and nervous system so that specific ways of thinking happen blindingly fast. An example of blindingly fast thinking in humans is vision -- humans recognize what they see very quickly. They do so because "seeing things" is a circumstance that humans and human ancestors have faced for billions of years. Our ancestors have had a lot of practice looking at things, so we are very good at it.

Human vision is an example of extremely hardwired, extremely instinctive thinking.

Adaptive thinking

Some activities, such as looking at things, happen all the time. Other activities, such as surviving drought, flood and famine, happen only once in a while. An organism can and should do a lot of instinctive thinking, but it can also benefit from dealing with unexpected circumstances, too. It needs to have the capacity for adaptive thinking for thinking "outside the box."

Adaptive thinking is used to deal with situations that don't come up often, but, if the organism can figure a way to survive these rarer situations, then it can survive and have children. Adaptive thinking is an insurance program. It's expensive, but it can sure pay off when it's needed.

Civilized thinking

Civilized humans are an odd duck.

Humans lived for thousands of generations in Africa in small semi-nomadic groups. I call this the Neolithic Village lifestyle. This is what human thinking is best adapted to. In particular, this is what human instinctive thinking is best adapted to. Thinking such as, "Trust family over strangers." comes from thousands of generations of living in this Neolithic Village lifestyle.

Modern civilization, with cell phones, Internet, cars, medical care, and so on, is off-the-charts in the human experience. When we live in a civilized world, we have to use a whole lot of adaptive thinking, and using so much adaptive thinking is also off-the-charts.

Humans of today are in a strange, strange place, thinkingwise.


Human thinking sits on a scale from highly instinctive to highly adaptive. Vision is an example of highly instinctive thinking, and cell phone texting is an example of highly adaptive thinking.

Both kinds of thinking are useful. Instinctive thinking deals well with recurring situations, and adaptive thinking deals well with one-of-a-kind situations.

Now lets move closer to the arts and crafts problem. Lets talk about how these two kinds of thinking feel.

What do Instinctive and Adaptive thinking feel like?

What do Instinctive and Adaptive thinking feel like?

Answering this gets us very close to art.

Instinctive thinking is mostly transparent -- at the conscious level, we don't think about it at all. At the conscious level, we don't think about how we balance when we walk down the street, we don't think about how to digest that Big Mac we had for lunch.

So, instinctive thinking is fast and transparent most of the time. But sometimes instinctive thinking does affect how we think at the conscious level. A famous example is falling in love. Falling in love is instinctive thinking. What does it feel like? It feels like something inside us is saying, "Yeah, this is right!" Where is the feeling coming from? We don't know, but the feeling is so, so, real!

This kind of instinctive thinking is a suggestion being made to our conscious level thinking from some subconscious level. It is a suggestion: we can choose to follow it, or we can choose to ignore it. If we follow it, it becomes a stronger and stronger part of our thinking. If we choose not to follow it, it steadily weakens. If the thinking has grown strong before we choose not to follow it, there is often a lot of conscious-level discomfort associated with the weakening. In the case of falling in love, this is called heartache.

Human emotion thinking is based on instinct thinking. Emotion thinking is an easy way to think. It's comfortable. It's fast. It's slogan is, "Let your heart be your guide."

That's instinct thinking, what about adaptive thinking? What does it feel like?

Adaptive thinking is learned thinking. The answers don't come from within the brain, they come from observing, training, and practicing. The brain is adapting to the real world outside the body.

In adaptive thinking, the brain looks at a situation, and then has to discover how to solve it. An example, hitting a baseball. The brain can employ instincts, such as balance and vision, but it has to figure out, painfully and slowly, how to employ those instincts to solve the problem of getting the bat to meet the ball.

So adaptive thinking is slow, clumsy and painful. As a person learns how to do something, habit thinking, something closer to instinctive thinking, takes over from pure adaptive thinking and the task becomes effortless. The thinking becomes "sport thinking" -- a smoothly functioning mix of adaptive and instinctive thinking.

Why have this slow, clumsy, painful way of thinking? Why do it? Why use it?

Because it solves problems that instinctive thinking can't. Instinct can't tell you how to hit a baseball. You have to learn, and that's adaptive thinking.

But, and this is important, few people like to do a lot of adaptive thinking. We do it, but it doesn't feel good while we are doing it, only the results feel good.

Now, lets get to the heart of this essay: How do these thinking styles relate to artwork and craftwork?

Craftwork and Artwork: Adaptive and Instinctive Thinking

Learning a craft starts with adaptive thinking. When a person first tries a craft, they must observe and practice. The beginner is clumsy and slow; doing the craft is hard, it causes painful, angry thinking, it is frustrating.

It is... mostly adaptive thinking.

With time, the brain learns how to employ instincts and habits (habits are one of many styles of thinking that are between instinctive and adaptive) so that performing the craft gets easier.

A person becomes more and more of a craftsperson as doing the craft becomes more comfortable and more transparent to conscious-level thinking.

Where does art fit in?

A person becomes an artist at their craft when they can get the results of their craftsmanship to resonate with other people's instinctive thinking -- when they can deliberately trigger emotional thinking in other people.

When other people see/hear/feel -- experience -- the craft of a craftsperson, and get an appropriate emotional feeling from that experience, then the craftsperson is acting as an artist as well as a craftsperson.

Notice that it is instinctive thinking that must be tweaked in the viewer. This means that craft directed to tweaking adaptive thinking isn't art. (An example of tweaking adaptive thinking in other people is lecturing.)

Art and Craft in Acting

Modern movie and stage acting is about getting viewers to think emotionally, which means triggering their instinctive thinking.

This is where the art comes in.

The acting craftsperson is one who has done his or her adaptive learning about acting. He or she knows how to go through the basics of acting as a sport thinker. He or she knows how to block, how to remember lines, how to take direction -- the basics.

What transforms acting from a craft to an art is knowing how to use those basics to trigger emotions in viewers.

In acting, emotion in the viewer is king. The acting craftsperson will go through the motions of acting, but not understand the effect of his or her craftsmanship on viewers. The acting artist understands, and uses the basics to fire up instinctive thinking in viewers.

And that...

is the difference...

between art and craft...

in acting.

-- The End --