You’re an actor – or on your way to becoming one. Do you think of yourself as an artist? Or do you regard acting as a craft? The difference between arts and crafts has been hotly debated for a very long time, especially in the visual arts. What does the distinction mean in the world of acting?
The difference between art and craft is partly a product of recent times and is often tied to modern aesthetic judgements. If you like it a lot it’s art. If you want to put it down, call it craft. Alternatively, you might think of the amateur actor as a craftsman and the professional, who has had acting training, as more of an artist. Some might even argue that the art of a dramatic work lies mainly in the writing and direction, and that actors are largely craftspeople who deliver the artistic product. But there are other ways you can see it.
A useful way of distinguishing art and craft is to think of craft as something that potentially anyone can learn. It’s that component of your capacity as an actor that is developed through teaching, by learning methods and techniques (at drama school and in acting training) and honing those techniques in practice. Artistry is harder to pin down, but typically refers to that indefinable quality that exceptionally skilled or gifted people possess. It’s what Robert De Niro or Cate Blanchett have in spades and a lot of other actors don’t possess to the same degree. No doubt that is what you aspire to in your acting career.
There are other ways of looking at the art : craft distinction as well. You can think of the art of acting as a question of individual style. Someone who not only masters a technique but also makes it his or her own might be regarded as an artist rather than a craftsperson. Art is what happens when it you have mastered your craft and are able to add something that is uniquely yours. Each of your performances is larger than the sum of its parts and we can call the difference ‘artistry’.
Wherever you stand in this endlessly arguable debate, most people agree that there is no art without craft. In your acting career, you would probably rather be seen as an artist than a master craftsperson. The thing to remember when you start out in acting is that everyone begins in the same place: learning the craft and the ‘tricks of the trade’. For almost all successful actors, this begins in the classroom or actor’s studio.
From this perspective, acting lessons deal in the craft of acting. It doesn’t follow, however, that your acting training doesn’t also concern acting as an art. Without a doubt, some of the artistry we admire in the performances of celebrated actors is also learned. It’s just harder to label. Acting training will also help you recognise what artistry looks like – even if you can’t pin it down. Perhaps another way of seeing the artist is as someone who, perhaps subconsciously, sees, understands and internalises that which cannot be taught.
Your acting lessons are about learning the nuts and bolts of the job. But drama classes are also a key environment for developing the ability to appreciate quality. That will help you, as an actor, to fine-tune your own performances, extend your scope and up your game. In this and other ways the art v. craft distinction breaks down. Method acting is a technique that is taught in academies and actor’s studios. It is also one that is associated with many of the actors we regard as great artists. That probably isn’t just coincidence, and the art and craft of acting can be tough to separate.
As an aspiring or novice actor you can set aside thorny questions and academic debates about acting as an art if you wish. Answers will surely take shape as you learn the craft that is always the foundation stone of all good acting.