The Blurring of Art and Craft

There is quite a bit of an overlap between the umbrella terms of art and craft.

 

Broadly speaking, craft is often considered as being the mastering of a medium. That is, honing your ability for the sake of perfecting a technique and creating a finished product as close to perfection as possible. 

Art is considered to be a little less technical, with the concept and heart behind the finished product taking precedence over the mastery of the execution. Artists master such mediums in order to express an idea or concept behind a work. The overarching point behind a work of art may not translate into a precisely perfect craft. 

The purpose behind art, as opposed to craft, is the expression rather than a functional finished product. 

To put it simply, art is in the design, and craft is in the execution

 

WHAT IS CRAFT?

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The word comes from the German word Kraft, which translates to simply mean power or ability. This reflects the importance of technique and skills in the field of craft. 

As defined earlier, craft is made in the pursuit of the perfect technique. It can be considered as the collation of everything in its place; fiddly details arranged just so. For example, watchmakers would be considered craftspeople over artists due to the exact nature of their work. Craft requires skills above all else, as well as a clear idea of how the finished product will look. The watchmaker doesn’t enter their workshop and start throwing gears and bezels together according to what feels right in their heart and soul - the process of creation is already planned and considered. For most people, the point of a watch is always for it to be a useful object that wearers use for the specific purpose of telling the time, and that is of greater importance than its aesthetic appearance. 

Craftsmanship is all about following the steps required to create a functional object. Yet the importance of the ability to produce a perfect object shouldn’t strip the idea of craft from human association. Rather than thinking of craft as a Henry Ford production line, the practice still requires human guidance and intelligence to complete it. You wouldn’t consider a factory churning out thousands of mugs to embody much craftsmanship, however mugs that are moulded by hand and baked in a kiln would be craft in motion. 

In western art theory, craft objects are considered inherently useful and will often serve a purpose. Craft can be elevated to art level when it has additional value beyond its function. However, for Native Americans the skills of art and craft are intertwined and do not follow the hierarchy of art forms that exist in Italian, French, and English art academies that began in the 16th century. 

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WHAT IS ART?

Prior to the European art traditions cementing into canons throughout the 16th century, all artists were considered to be tradespeople or craftspeople. The most celebrated of all artists were seen as skilled workers, and not afforded the badge of ‘artistry’ that denotes original creation that comes from the heart. 

Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo raised the level of artist to a profession with the opening of the world’s first Art Academy in Florence in 1561. Yet this school fundamentally taught that art was an intellectual pursuit, and that something of the artist and great questions of humanity should go into it. In other words, the point of art was to act as a stimulus for the mind. 

While many consider this a necessary function for humans to exist, its function is more mental than base. A quilt will keep you warm and a basket can be filled with berries to feed your family - art will make you think, not aid you in staying alive. According to the great philosopher Kant, works of art exist to cultivate the human spirit. 

It can be said that the difference between art and craft is that ‘art is original creation whereas craft is carrying out an instruction, following a convention or employing a technique’ (Telfer 15). Originality is another key differentiator between works of artistry and craftsmanship. Going back to the example of a watch, the melting clocks of Dali’s Persistence of Memory would be considered art, as opposed to the craft of a finely engineered Rolex. 

Salvador Dali’s famous piece “The Persistence of Memory” 

Salvador Dali’s famous piece “The Persistence of Memory” 

Another useful way to compare art and craft is in the construction of houses. Think about buying a block of land in a new suburb and planning to build a future home. An artistic house will offer a new energy and freshness to the landscape. Perhaps designed by an architect who wants to create distinct shapes and set their work apart, an artistic home may be thought provoking and express the architect’s vision of what human dwellings mean to them. 

A house that is not artistic will probably follow a standard template for its creation. A non-artistic home may be considered to be a McMansion or one of many little boxes on the hillside. Craft, or the mastering of skills in order to create a functional product, is the practice behind such houses. 

A crafty set of homes… 

A crafty set of homes… 

... and a very artistic house

... and a very artistic house

Films are another useful medium that helps exemplify the - albeit contentious - differences between art and craft. There are plenty of films churned out in Hollywood according to a formula and tried and tested techniques. Then there are the artistic films that express an interesting concept that makes viewers and participants feel a certain way as it plays out on the silver screen. 

Of course, the churned out films will still attempt to make the viewers feel a certain way, but artistic films often do this by charting new grounds and crossing boundaries. The purpose of an artistic film may not be for everyone to relate to its message but to express the emotions of its creator. This is another important distinction between craft and art; works of art are considered to be expressions of the artist that come from the heart and soul. 


THE BLURRING OF THE TWO

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The distinction between art and craft is not as simple as it may initially appear. First of all, it’s important to recognise the distinction between western and non-western contexts when exploring this grey area. Functional objects made from everyday materials may be put into the craft basket and differentiated from ‘intellectual art’ according to western traditions. Yet other cultures may not distinguish between art and functionality at all. Whether something is art or craft is very much in the eye of the beholder. 

With this in mind, can we definitively say if art has become a craft or vice versa? Are there conditions that can define this process? If it all depends on what the viewer makes of the work in front of them, or the equally subjective intent of the work’s creator, can there be any way to simply put a work in the ‘art’ or ‘craft’ box?


 

Some potential conditions for the craft or art definition are as follows:

• Does it move the viewer? •

A classic art definer is the ability of a piece to illicit an emotional response. Yet feelings are completely contextual and exist independently of the eyes of the creators and viewers. A standard homemade meal, a quilt, or a sweater may incite an emotional response in some people even more than a finely detailed sculpture made of valuable metals. However, if the piece has been created with the intent to serve a purpose, it may generally be considered a craft. 

• Is there a structure? •

If there is a definite way to complete a project and pre-conceived idea of how the end result will look, a piece may be considered craft. Art is given airy-fairy liberties of being open-ended and afforded the potential to grow and blossom into another thing far from its original concept.

• Is it functional? •

This is another way that art and craft are distinguished in theory. is the purpose of the piece in question to make you think or to keep your feet dry? If there is a concept independent of the functionality, the object may be considered a work of art instead of a work of craft. 

• Where is it? ••

On the walls of the Whitney or the spare room in your grandmother’s house? The belief in art’s superiority over craft seems to have its roots in the canons of the Renaissance. You can believe in certain mediums and methods as being art based on whether tertiary educational institutions or a following of fans have deemed them worthy of the ‘art’ title or whether they are hanging in the hallowed halls of an art gallery instead of a shop shelf or your bedroom. 

There is no denying that art and craft aren’t completely separate entities. They are intertwined and work together to create a finished product. If a certain level of craftsmanship or good technique is absent, the concept behind a work may pale or be lost. Yet if there is not much concept or intent behind the work to begin with, then all that remains is the process of production. 

Perhaps there should be a word that embodies both art and craft, because ‘things’ can certainly be functional pieces of art. Perhaps we could borrow from Sweden, a place where beautifully designed yet functional objects often blur the lines between art and craft. In Swedish there is a word for it - Konsthantverk - which translates to ‘artcraft’. 

Still confused? Perhaps a visual guide will help differentiate the terms more clearly:

 

Art


Craft