Is watchmaking an art? A special Art & Watchmaking section

December 2012

Is watchmaking an art? Is it the 12th Art, as was ceremoniously proclaimed during the last Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix?

It all depends on the definition attributed to the word “art”, a notion that changes over time. During the Middle Ages, the seven “liberal arts” taught in the centres of higher learning were grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Among all these disciplines, only music is considered today to be an “art”, or more precisely, a fine art, whose definition is to “to produce something for its aesthetic value”.

– Without a doubt, watchmaking is “fine”, but is it also one of the “fine arts”?

– Yes, if we accept that the result is “fine”.

– No, if we consider the conditions under which this “art” is practiced.

As Franco Cologni reminds us in an interview granted to Europa Star, the essential principle of art is the freedom of a creator. An author, painter, sculptor, musician and dancer are, in principle, free to act or create as they wish, without being concerned with anything other than their own expression. Yet, we must qualify this definition. Not only has this freedom not always been the rule (consider, for example, the painters of the Middle Ages, whose subjects had necessarily to be religious) and still is not universal even today, but we must also not forget that art, so praised for its freedom, is itself also dependent on a market, in this case, the art market. Its freedom is a managed freedom. And if the recognition of the “market” is a long time coming, the artist, without any audience, is reduced to creating in the shadows. This freedom is even more restricted in the case of the architect, who can only create to order, and the filmmaker, who, even before creating, must convince his financial backers.

The line between what is Art and what is not (or not entirely) depends on the use that we make, or will make, of the created product. A painting, a poem and a piece of music have no other object beside themselves. They are there to be seen, felt and heard. A watch, on the other hand, as beautiful as it may be, as close as it may be to an “objet d’art”, maintains its essential practical function, which is to tell the time. If it is sometimes “nearly” an objet d’art, it is nonetheless still a slave to the function that it was designed for. Herein lies all the difference.

Still, in a thousand different ways, watchmaking seeks to approach the status of an artistic activity. This may mean employing still more “artists”—the famous Métiers d’Art—by moving further away from the single essential feature of the watch (see, for example, the mechanical sculptures of MB&F in this issue) or by moving closer to the art market thanks to the spectacular auctions that are trying to establish veritable market values for timepieces like those for artists. In this regard, does the recent sale by Sotheby’s of the Space Traveller’s Watch by George Daniels, which went for more than double its highest estimate to reach the record sum of more than CHF 2 million, give the English watchmaker the status of an “artist”? In other words, does an object reach the status of art when its value is disconnected from its use?

Is watchmaking an art? A special Art & Watchmaking section

Source: Europa Star December - January 2012-13 Magazine Issue

The Arts & Watches section comprises the following articles: