Do a web search and you’ll find several articles and blog posts on Art vs. Craft. You’ll find debates on how one is superior to the other. You’ll find all kinds of arguments about how they are different or have different purposes. Folks can get pretty bent about this too, surprisingly.
But, what if the whole reason we can’t seem to collectively gain any clarity on this is that they are… the same. Maybe we should be discussing instead how there are no differences. Maybe we need a new framework that encompasses both?
As someone who has both crafted with fiber and painted with acrylics, I feel there is more in common than different. Neither is superior to my mind. Are we artists or crafters… or perhaps creatives and makers?
The 3 major categories used to distinguish between art and craft are the process of making, the purpose or intention, and the end experience. Today I’ll be musing about the process.
One argument is that mastery can take years of experience for craft, but that you can be a great artist with innate talent. In my life as an artist, I’ve seen mediocre artists outpace talented ones through hard work and consistency… experience? I’ve seen poor artists become famous, but not through talent, rather through brilliant marketing. I’ve seen long time fiber artists create very homemade looking goods for a long time… so they have tons of experience, but not the will to improve through that experience. If you’ve ever attended any kind of beginner crafting course, you’ve seen talented beginners there too. Innate talent can be anywhere, even in sport, so talent versus experience doesn’t really distinguish art vs. craft.
Some would suggest that craft is about simply making and art is about pushing boundaries. I’ve seen fiber artists creating their own patterns to knit up with handspun yarn. To me, that’s pushing past the store bought pattern worked in a store-bought yarn. So many decisions had to go into creating that piece. On the flip side, I’ve seen the very same San Francisco bridge image painted over and over again by the same artist. It is really up to the creator if there are boundaries being pushed, no matter what the medium. Consider this quote by Jonathan Ive:
“It's easy to think that craft can't change but important to remember that all craft process was at some point new, at some point challenged convention - not to be contrary, but enabled by some breakthrough, some newly discovered principle, or sometimes some wonderful accident.”
One supposition is that art is something that wasn’t before and won’t be again, whereas a craft like pottery is generic. When a mug is created by a potter, it wasn’t in existence before. That potter has gained experience since the last mug. That potter’s work is different from another potter’s work. No two mugs made by hand are ever exactly the same. That potter might even be pushing the boundaries of making the mug or using special glazing in a unique combination. And, as mentioned above, there is nothing to stop painters or other artists from making multiple copies or images. How is that something unique? Whether something is unique or copied is more dependent on the creator, not what is being created. The concept of individuality doesn't seem to distinguish between art and craft.
Craft has a history of being learned by trade or by mentors. Art has this mystique of being something we either have a talent for or not. You don’t need a mentor to be a talented artist is the implication. Ask any artist if they’ve had help, or mentors, or great instructors. They were helped by someone at some time. You aren’t just an artist anymore that you are just a soccer player. You have to get there by practice and with teachers, even if it is YouTube videos.
Finally, with regards to process, there is talk about the materials defining whether it is art or craft. So, if this is the case, how is it that photography became “art” back in the 80’s? How is it that some of the new laser printers and wearable tech are being hailed as “art”? How is it that Ruth Asawa can use the equivalent of knitting wire and it is art? Saying that clay is art in sculpture and not art in a mug tells me that the medium a creator chooses has nothing to do with the issue of art vs. craft.
It would seem that there are consistent overlaps between both art and craft for the process arguments I’ve encountered. This would suggest that art vs. craft cannot be determined by the process a creator uses.
Check out this Ted-Ed video by Laura Morelli to get a little bit of a history of when art and craft became distinctions.
Coming up next time… does the purpose or intention of a created item determine if it is art or craft?