Comparing notes


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey of Ghana wrote, “In my society there is no single word for ‘art.’ We have no distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft.’ All are creative activities requiring skills and a sense of aesthetics. The aesthetic qualities of arts are not only determined by the language of art (i.e., rhythms, balance, shapes, lines, texture, etc.) but by the ethics or values of the people. Several art forms can be combined for a purpose. For example, music, sculpture, pottery, painting, textiles and dance may be used simultaneously. (A man may dance to a drum while wearing a mask and a special costume with his body partially painted — while carrying a ceremonial pot.) Art is a necessity, an integral force and a part of living — an essential role in everyday lives of Ghanaian communities. A particular work of art may be destroyed after use, no matter how beautiful or expensive it may be. We also have taboos: A blacksmith should not strike a person with his bare hands. A carver should not work when annoyed. Tools and materials need respect. The arts are not the privilege of a few selected people.”

Business Day II, 2020 Watercolour on Arches 300 gram Watercolour Paper 22 × 29 9/10 inches by Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey (b.1984)

Business Day II, 2020
Watercolour on Arches 300 gram Watercolour Paper
22 × 29 9/10 inches
by Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey (b.1984)

Thanks, Jonathan. I’ve never actually been hit by a blacksmith, but it’s handy to know that when I am, she’s liable to do it with her ball-peen hammer. What is evident from Jonathan’s information is just how universal and yet how particular are one’s attitudes about art. Both relief and insight are here. By contrast, in Western cultures it’s safe to say that art is often relegated to an elite activity — for the benefit of insiders. Broadening this base would mean inviting art into our human totality. In both cultures, art is a part of the way we understand things. In this sense we are brothers and sisters. We, the windows to our cultures, struggle daily with the same sorts of challenges — to understand, modify, and remake our worlds in our own way. Alone, but not always alone, we perform our dances.

Elmina Ripples, 2020 Watercolor on paper 22 × 29 9/10 inches by Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey

Elmina Ripples, 2020
Watercolor on paper
22 × 29 9/10 inches
by Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey

Art need not be precious. Art’s a doing thing that sometimes gets commercialized — even in Ghana. Investment in, speculation on, and the private coveting of art are not prerequisite in all places. One might conclude that the introduction of commerce adds an odd spin to the act of art. But it’s still the ideas, tools, process and spirit that make art. For the people of this planet, art is as perennial as joy.

Best regards,


Cape Coast Fishing Bay, 2020 Watercolour on Arches 300 gram Watercolour Paper 29 9/10 × 22 inches by Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey

Cape Coast Fishing Bay, 2020
Watercolour on Arches 300 gram Watercolour Paper
29 9/10 × 22 inches
by Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey

PS: “The visible universe is a storehouse of signs to which the imagination assigns a place and a relative value; it is a kind of nourishment that the imagination must digest and transform.” (Charles Baudelaire)

Esoterica: Yesterday I also received a note from Duane Dorshimer of Raleigh, N.C. He asked, “What is your artistic mission? To express? To communicate? To decorate? To idealize? To profit?” Thanks, Duane. Writing these twice-weekly letters has helped me to realize that there’s more than one reason to make art. In my case it’s everything you mentioned, but that stuff came later. When I was a kid I saw shamans who danced to a different drummer. I wanted to be like them, to have their power. I admired what those magicians did — and the skill and craft required to do it. It seemed to me to be a good thing, a good life.

This letter was originally published as “Comparing notes” on October 4, 2005.

Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey

Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey

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  1. Beautiful. It is fascinating to me that “we” regard music and visual art as separate domains. I am a musician who switched my creativity switch to visual art. It feels quite normal to me.

  2. I totally agree. “Art” (aka “fine art”) is only one very narrow category of creativity. Any work we do that we care deeply about, that makes us feel whole, that helps us get to our best self, that does the same for others when we share it ,(whether through sales, social media donations, collaboration, etc.) and makes the world a better place, is creative work.

  3. In Western society, what has usually been relegated to the “craft” category and seen as somehow not “fine art” is usually women’s work — quilting, needlework, etc., all useful. Seems that art created by men without a practical purpose is more highly valued as “real art.”

  4. Absolutely wonderful watercolors by Jonathan! I like his inclusion of all creative forms. It saddens me that many of our school systems do not see the value of art. It is the first thing that is taken away when cuts are made in the budget, like it is not important. When I was in high school, I majored in art for 4 years. I don’t believe the program exists today.
    I remember reading Bette Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She saw what happened to students grades when art was taken out of the schools – they went down. When put back in, they went up. All the things we need to be productive humans are brought out when we create. Observation, decision making, problem solving, and the list goes on. The clothes we have on, the chair we sit in, the plates we eat off of all were designed by a creative person and when we use the gifts that God gave us and invite Him to create along with us, amazing, wonderful creations will be given to the world in all areas of the arts.

  5. David De Groot on

    In my understanding “fine art” in the context of visual art is a term applied to non-functional art such as paintings and sculptures that are original rather than repetitive expressions and that imply a certain level of intellectual content and technical skill that separates them from decoration.
    In my understanding, “craft” or “fine craft” is applied to works that may have most of the qualities of “fine art” but that are functional and produced repetitively, such as a potter making many identical (even if beautiful with an original design) bowls, a leatherworker making many of the same design belts or purses, a woodworker making cabinets, etc.

  6. Sara, why were these 2020 artworks by Jonathan added or updated to your father’s 2005 letter? Your father never saw them, and I found them confusing and a bit misleading as they weren’t part of your father’s experience.

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