Whitney S. Christiansen

Whitney S. Christiansen

What Is Art? Craft, Kunst, and Hana No'eau

What do we mean when we use the word “art?” When we see or speak the word, a variety of images likely come to mind, from art galleries to paint palettes to the Mona Lisa

A green wall with several framed pictures and an empty bench in front of them.
The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Photo by Serg Bataev on Unsplash.

Or perhaps your experiences include the performing arts, with audiences clapping to final bows, or the literary ones, with stacks of novels piled up beside rainy windows and steaming cups of your preferred hot beverage (or perhaps that’s just me).

But regardless, unless it’s a topic that you deliberately think about, “the arts” typically bring to mind one of seven different forms or genres most often taught as the seven forms in a beginner arts class: painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, theater, cinema, and music.

But there is more to the arts than textbook classifications. As it turns out, the definition of “art” is a slippery thing.

A mug with a hot beverage in it, with a book in the background.
Photo by Nadya Shuran on Unsplash.

Our English word, art, and its translation in the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and a host of other regional languages) are descendants of the Latin root word, arte, meaning “skill.” (Fun fact: Spanish always capitalizes the word in a nod to its importance, Arte. Nice to see SOMEONE give art Arte its due). 

An artist, in Latin, is an artifex. But then so is a craftsman (a craftswoman, and thereby a female artist, is an artificis; the Romans were, of course, rather picky about their gendered nouns. We at 4A Arts encourage everyone to choose the noun or pronoun that fits them best). 

In fact, despite the “High” Renaissance’s reputation for churning out some of the biggest name artists in the ‘biz – from 1490 to 1530, Europe saw the career heights of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Bramante, and Titian – but it wasn’t until over a century later, in the 1610s, that the word art would begin to take on the meaning it has today, that of works of creative skill, beauty, and imagination, created by an individual artist of great skill and training. The artists who adorned sixteenth century Italy with their works would have instead been known as “craftsmen.”

Prior to that, in the Western World, the word art would have referred more to the skills one learned via training or scholarship, and particularly to the seven liberal arts originally established in ancient Greece: the quadrivium (astronomy, mathematics, geometry, and music,) later followed by the addition of the trivium (rhetoric, grammar, and logic, which form our modern basis of writing and persuasion.) During the European Middle Ages, the first public schools, which were based on a foundation of the liberal arts, sprung up in the cathedrals and churches that were literally being built right around the students by the very same types of anonymous skilled workers that would go on to international celebrity status just a few hundred years later. 

Stonework bas relief featuring medieval rural workers
Facade of Amiens Cathedral featuring rural occupations. Courtesy HaguardDuNord under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Two images of Michael's craft store front and Jo-Ann Fabrics store front with text, "I like to imagine that Michael and Joann were a happily married couple with plans to open the greatest arts & crafts store ever. But then, things went awry after a wild night of swing-scrapbooking. They soon divorced with bad blood, each vowing to defeat each other via a Craft Empire." A comment below says, "Welcome to the World of War-Craft."

So what is craft, then? Today, whole chain stores are devoted to crafting, from Michael’s to Joann Fabrics to Artist & Craftsman Supply

If art refers to skill or training, can studying the etymology of craft give us any insight into the nature of art? As it turns out…maybe not.

The word craft descends from Old English cræft or High German chraft, meaning “power, physical strength, might,” and – there’s that word again – “skill.”

(Anyone denigrating the ladies in the local embroidery aisle might want to rethink their image of crafters).

But what if we turn to other languages? Do any of them imply snobby and untouchable? Do they place velvet ropes around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, test your knowledge of Shakespeare in the Park, or require white gloves and a cane for a stroll through Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi? 

Decidedly not.

The Germanic languages use the word kunst for art, meaning “knowledge,” and again, “skill.” And in fact, kunst is derived from the same word we know in English as cunning; one can see the connection to “crafty” if you look carefully. It’s also the same root word as can, reflecting the inherent possibilities within any form of making.

A circular cross stitch frame with the words "Anything you can do, I can do bleeding" embroidered on it
Image courtesy of Shannon Downing, aka BadAssCrossStitch.

Hebrew implies a relationship between the work and the education of the worker – the Hebrew word for art, אומנות, means “craftsmanship,” but also “fosterage,” and “tutorship.” 

In Greek, we see the same connection – τέχνη refers to “craft, skill, or trade,” but also “cunning or wile,” and also the more subtle “means,” as in “the method or course of action used to achieve a result,” suggesting that the art is in the creating, not in the final product. 

For the Hindi, it’s कला, or “prowess” and “skill.” (It also refers to a “membrane,” suggesting how art can act as a skin that covers or changes an appearance.) In Mongolian, урлаг is “art and craft,” but also “proficiency;” in Pashto, هنر (huner) refers not only to “art” and “talent” but also to “science and knowledge.” 

But my favorite word and definition for art must be that of the Hawai’ians, where hana noʻeau refers to “the skillful work.” 

The Hawai’ians acknowledge that the best art, of course, is done well. But it is no less work despite being art. And work requires practice, knowledge, and skill. The wonderful thing about skills and knowledge is that they can be learned, and that no definition of the word art – ancient or modern – refers to natural talent as a prerequisite for creating it. “Art,” in fact, appears to be the simple act of using one’s skill – however developed or amateur it may be – to create.

General Manager

Elena K. Holy is proud to join the 4A movement as General Manager. Her 30+ year arts management career includes NYC’s non-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, commercial Broadway and Off-Broadway at Richard Frankel Productions, and founding and running The Present Theatre Company,  where she co-created the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). FringeNYC was once the largest multi-arts festival in North America – with an all-volunteer staff of 100 people, 2500+ additional volunteers, and 5000 artists representing 200 companies from all over the world, and producing nearly 1100 performances annually, with many now-famous alumni and productions.

As Producer, Holy was awarded the 1997 New York Magazine Award for her “creativity, vision and enterprise”. In 2006, she was named one of New York Magazine’s “Influentials” because she “turned the Fringe Festival, which she founded in 1996, into Sundance for the theater crowd – a place where anyone with an idea and a tiny budget can get noticed. Urinetown, the 1999 Fringe musical that made it to Broadway and won three Tonys, is the most extreme example, but more than a dozen Fringe shows have gone on to significant Off Broadway runs. Her triumph: retaining the fest’s brilliant lunacy amid commercial success.”

Other achievements include the 2007 Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture, serving as a Tony Awards Nominator from 2008, and being named an Indie Theater Hall of Fame “Person of the Decade” in 2015. As FringeNYC ended (and the pandemic began) she became Interim Managing Director at SHADOWLAND STAGES in beautiful Ellenville, New York where she and husband Kevin share a home with their two westies, Daisy and JuneBug. She serves as Treasurer for the local Chamber of Commerce and is an active member of her community.

Communications and Marketing Coordinator

Working as the Communications and Marketing Coordinator of 4A Arts fulfills Alex Carrillo’s dream to bring his knowledge of the entertainment industry to the broader arts and culture world. Born in Oakland, CA and raised in the Tri-Cities of Washington state, Alex envisaged himself exiting generational poverty and eventually working in the music industry.

After high school, without scholarships, funding, or other support to help him reach his goals, he enlisted in the U.S. military in 2013, joining the Army Infantry. Alex received his basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia before being stationed in Fort Drum, New York, where he proudly became a member of 4-31 Charlie Company, the Mountain Division (the world’s best kept secret). In 2015, Alex was deployed to Afghanistan in a classified combat war zone through early  2016. 

After his time in the service, Alex returned home to seek his college degree. He enrolled at The Los Angeles Recording School, a division of the Los AngelesFilm School, where he received his associate’s degree in Music Production and bachelor’s  in Entertainment Business. 

While still studying at the L.A. Recording School,  Alex landed a publishing deal with Position Music, earning his music a place in the Netflix movie Moxie and in the video game NBA2k22 with his album Locked In. 

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree, Alex began working on the business side of the industry, managing artists, performing social and digital marketing, and distribution, among other duties. Alex joined 4A Arts in the summer of 2022, bringing those talents to the nonprofit world.

Director of Research and Operations

Whitney S. Christiansen is a native Kentuckian with an interdisciplinary background in arts, education, and advocacy. She spent nearly a decade teaching secondary English and drama in public schools, receiving a master’s in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Louisville in 2017, where she received that year’s Grady Nutt Award for the year’s most creative directed study project, “Summoned,” an interdisciplinary practicum that combined research on medieval morality plays and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus with contemporary concepts of costume and set design. From 2009-2015 she was a cast member and later director for the Kentucky Highland Renaissance Festival, where she inaugurated and directed the festival’s teen cast, who developed two stage shows in the commedia dell’arte tradition. 

Leaving the classroom in 2019, Whitney received her second master’s degree from Colorado State University in Arts Leadership and Cultural Management, where she began working with Be An #ArtsHero, a grassroots campaign dedicated to bringing COVID relief to Arts Workers (now Arts Workers United.) She was the researcher on staff for AWU’s lobbying team for the U.S. House Small Business Committee’s January 2022 hearing on the creative economy, and for Ovation TV’s The Green Room with Nadia Brown, an educational comedy show about the creative economy that launched in March of 2022. Formerly the general manager of the Center for Music Ecosystems, Whitney heads up 4A Arts’ new research initiative alongside her work managing central operations.

executive director

Actor, entrepreneur, political strategist, and father of two, Gavin Lodge comes to 4A Arts with a unique perspective on arts and culture in America. A 20-year veteran of stage and screen, Gavin grew up in suburban Colorado and traversed the country in his work with political campaigns at the senate and presidential levels as well as touring for shows.

After studying international affairs and philosophy at the University of Colorado, he worked as a field organizer in the Iowa Caucus followed by the role of “body guy” to then-candidate Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State. Politics empowered him to move to New York City to pursue a performing career. Ultimately, he performed in multiple Broadway shows (including 42nd Street, Spamalot, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as well as regional theater, national tours and several network television appearances.

Though he was thrilled every time he stepped onto a theatrical or sound stage, Gavin was equally happy to take on leadership roles in his local union and later his kids’ PTA.  

With the Covid-19 pandemic, Gavin jumped back into the political realm, working as a strategist for Bryson Gillette, a minority-owned PR firm focused on politics and public affairs. He also volunteered for Be an #ArtsHero, an arts advocacy movement blossoming during the first few months of the pandemic. During his time with Be an #ArtsHero, he was part of a team that successfully lobbied for a first-of-its-kind hearing on the creative economy in front of the House of Representatives Small Business Committee.

Gavin lives in rural Connecticut with his partner (a composer and orchestral conductor), his TikTok-dancing daughter (who is musically gifted in unparalleled ways) and his soccer-playing son who recently told him “Dad? I’m just not into concerts and theater stuff.” As he told his son, Gavin believes there is much more to American arts and culture than “concerts and theater stuff.” From the video games his son loves to play to low-rider paint jobs to streaming television series while sitting on the couch, Gavin sees American arts and culture as an inclusive, “big tent” spectrum where everyone is an artist and everyone is a member of an audience.