Art or Craft, What’s the Difference?

Questions About Art, Crafts, and Meaning Making

Do you have some sort of creative expression? Do you write? Or paint? Or sew? Do you make decorative objects? Utilitarian objects?

Do you consider the product of your effort art? Or craft?

A while back, I found a show on PBS called Closer to the Truth that was ostensibly about art and meaning. I was expecting some insights from neuroscience or a conversation about symbology. It turned out that the show was basically just white, male, Eurocentric gatekeeping. I was really disappointed by the lack of breadth in the perspectives presented.

I had been looking to learn something new or feel enlightened, instead I got a bit fired up. Isn’t there a universality in meaningful art? Because it expresses something about the human condition to which a diverse audience can relate. You know, the collective unconscious and all that jazz.

I decided that I wasn’t willing to accept something as art “because someone else said so,” anymore. So I started looking for a better way to answer the question of what is art and what is craft.

One common answer that I kept coming across is that art expresses ideas beyond the scope of the form whereas craft serves human objectives (well-being and fulfillment of expectations). But are these mutually exclusive?

Monet at the DeYoung, 2019

Maybe the Dictionary Can Help

Art and craft are both valued as products of human effort. Definitions of craft indicate that there is an expectation of a certain, demonstrable level of proficiency.

But I think that proficiency is as necessary for the production of art as a certain amount of creativity and freedom of expression is desirable in a craft. A ballerina or a writer would be called an artist although they both work every day their craft.

For some reason, thinking about proficiency reminded me of what Mr. Densley, my 8th grade art teacher, used to say, “Even Picasso learned how to draw it how it looks before he could draw it how it doesn’t look.”

Can we determine what is art versus what is craft based on the materials used or the method by which a work is created?

An Inch of Art for a Week … or was it a craft?

If Not How, Then What?

There are many things that are considered art which are created with common materials. Think about seeing an Eames chair made from molded plastic being displayed in an art museum. Or art made from junk like the work of Noah Purifoy.  

Maybe craft is the creation of a utilitarian object and art is nonfunctional? But what about the art of fashion? Clothing, despite how fanciful or decorative or imaginative it may be, is still a utilitarian object, isn’t it?

Maybe art is the creation of one, unique artifact whereas crafts are things that can be replicated?

But then what about Monet’s many, many iterations of his water lilies?  Or the performing arts? A symphony or a play must be replicated to be experienced as the artist intended. Or objects that are mass produced?  How do we reconcile the work of Andy Warhol?

My creativity doll and her pet cat

The Process Or The Product

I was talking to an executive from a local arts organization, and I mentioned my conundrum to her. Her answer: art is the idea and craft is the execution of the idea. I like this definition very much although it speaks more to the process than the product (that is a whole other rabbit hole we may want to explore another day).

Now I’m wondering:

Is the distinction between art and craft even useful? Necessary?

Maybe what I’m suggesting is that we can all be more critical about finding ways to consider creative work on its own merits and making up our own minds as to what we feel is meaningful regardless of whether someone else chooses to call it a work of art or a craft.

I would LOVE to know what you think.

4 Replies to “Art or Craft, What’s the Difference?”

  1. Well, you sure got me thinking so early in the day! My thought is that art is an expression in which others can use their senses to absorb the object, dance, writing, music, or food. If the creator of such expression is skilled, their craft can create experiences for others. I believe the expression should be well executed in order to be art, or it is considered junk, silliness, or noise. It is the craft that makes something art.

  2. I think there is a difference between capital A Art and art or crafts. Maybe arts or crafts is something you create for expression and capital A Art is something ycan monetize.

  3. Hmmmm?? You got me thinking about my embroidered overalls! I just thought embroidering was my therapy, but now I’m thinking of it completely different.

  4. I think the old saying: “Art is in the eye of the beholder” is the truth. Take the American quilt; obviously 200 years ago it was a way to make something useful out of rags. Nothing went to waste in those days. Now it is called a craft, and some are even recognized as “works of art.” Who knows: the next generation may see them as rags again. Painting is the same. Cubist painters are a taste; not for everyone. I think one of the best things about technology is that you can choose any photograph and have it on your wall in that frame called a TV screen and enjoy it as often as you wish. I wish they would make a Georgia O’Keefe gallery show on a DVD. One of her big flowers on the wall? YES!

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