Carpentry vs. Art: What's the Difference?
A preview of an answer that might be forthcoming
March 19, 2013

Shortly after Alien Phenomenology was publsihed, Darius Kazemi asked: what's the difference between carpentry and art? Carpentry, for the record, is my name for the philosophical practice of making things, of which articles and books are but one example. I borrowed and expanded the term from the ordinary sense of woodcraft and adapted from Graham Harman and Alphonso Lingis, who use it to refer to the way things mold one another.

Darius wondered, why distinguish between the different uses of things? Isn't this just a commission of the intentional fallacy? These are reasonable questions.

As it happens, I have an unpublished and probably unfinished paper that answers this question, and which includes a good measure of carpentry in so doing. But after a back and forth on Twitter on this topic, I figured maybe I should offer a preview of that answer since it's been almost a year since I wrote the paper and carpentered the illustrations, and I still haven't done anything with them.

I don't expect anybody will be satisfied with these answers yet, but I offer them as a preview of more to come:

  1. Anytime art comes up we have a problem, because the twentieth century made it such that anything can be art, whether you or I like it or not. So in that sense, I guess Darius is right.
  2. Carpentry is a perspective on creative work that asks philosophical questions. Or differently put, carpentry is what you call it when matter (including art, why not) is used (at least) but especially fashioned for philosophical use.
  3. Carpentry is the process of making things that help philosophers (which is just to say, lovers of wisdom) pursue arguments and questions, not just illustrations of ideas that "really" live in the discursive realm.
  4. Carpentry it's not "just" art because it participates in the practice of philosophy, just like a surgeon's scalpel isn't art because it participates in the practice of medicine.
  5. The above notwithstanding, carpentry surely also has other uses and interpretations beyond the ones I originally conceived.

Comments (7)
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Hey Ian,

Thanks for posting this up - I'd love to see the paper sometime. I think you've approached this question the right way and even if the bullet points are a preview, they sound sufficiently reasonable in my eyes. If anything, its not Carpentry vs. Art, but an extension, inclusion, transformation or adaption between the two.

The problem one finds here in debates about 'art' and 'non-art' distinctions is the usual rootedness of a institutional validation which explicitly determines value on the basis of acceptance. This Duchampian minefield is something one has to simply deal with of course: yet at the same time OOO and carpentry do intersect with art historical enquiries which defeat / question existing regimes. For example the healthy resurgence of aesthetics in Harman's allure, when the dominant poststructural tendencies define themselves as esoterically post-aesthetic (perhaps a healthy distinction could be used to underscore the difference between art objects and aesthetics of objects).

So for me, there are two questions linked into one:

1.) I get the variance-use-value of Carpentry: the purpose of practice to 'do' things which are not inherently defined as 'art'. In which case, should art-making locate itself as a theory which can point towards a practice privileged 'as' art over other methods? (considering we're making a distinction here) and:

2.) How would such distinctions apply in the case of interdisciplinary shows like Latour and Weibel's Making Things Public, where such artistic practices are deliberately curated to be indistinguishable from other methods of enquiry, i.e. science/politics? Is this show 'Carpentry' as one defines it, or would it be something else entirely?

I've been suggesting that we work along these lines in terms of manufacturing prototypes (as opposed to archetypes) which has a sense I think of a working model in progress that is open to re-visioning in varying settings and or to various purposes. Keeps things in the realm of experimentation/engineering/design while still functioning in ways akin to Wittgenstein's perspicuous presentations or so I hope.


1) On the one hand, I don't think I have an opinion on the matter, not a normative one anyway. Or if I do, it's only as an artist, an identity I'm hardly ever comfortable in. That said, and on the other hand, I think the overwhelming rule of conceptualism is eating art-qua-art alive, such that the only methods left are those that strip away ever more layers of a non-infinite onion.

2) Good question. Proto-carpentry at the very least. But I'm tempted to conclude that the real rhetorical function of that show happened outside the show anyway.

So, it sounds like art with a higher purpose that raises its eyes to something transcendant? Like, a lot of art that is produced today is produced without serving any philosophical purpose (the logo for Subway, that billboard you always see, some kid who did 10,000 prints of a lime green monster cause it looked cool, etc.). These serve the purpose of conveying a message to the audience, but are largely void of any *real* input from the creator.

I think specifically of graphic art and such when I say this, but I think that it can be said for any creations. It comes down to whether a creation is created in order to aid in gaining one profit (be it money, fame, women, or a giant bearskin rug), or if it is a real outpouring of the soul into something.

I think of an artist who creates because he enjoys it and pours his life into his work, but does not do it to gain himself profit. It is something that pleases *him*. He does not do it to please others.

I struggle to elucidate this without talking all gooey. Perhaps a limitation of my dialect. But, what I would identify as carpentry is something that causes you to feel something real within yourself. That is to say, it does not produce a novel reaction, but a genuine feeling that emanates from the work.

Skin me fast!

Johnson Howard on April 17, 2013 1:48 AM

Hi Ian|

If anything can be art by fiat, then it should also be possible that anything can be non-art by fiat as well. So: wouldn't such an explicitly non-art object automatically qualify as an object of philosophy, and therefore as carpentry?

Howdy Ian,

I was about to email you regarding my current OOO related solo art exhibition in NYC, but then discovered this rather relevant thread. The show features what I'm calling "Nano-Nonobjective-Oriented Ontographs", “Qubit-Built Quilts” and “Scriptable-Scalable-Species-Tool-Beings”. Intended as a form of Future Studies, my initial purpose was to visually connect the praxis, operative ideologies, promises, and hype of 3D printing to the R&D and speculations surrounding theoretical molecular manufacturing. That said, the body of work also became significantly influenced by OOO and notably your chapters on carpentry and ontography.

Here's the gallery link:

Hope you might well find that these efforts somehow contribute to the larger conversation.

Shane, thanks for sharing this information about your exhibition. I wish I were in NYC to see it!

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