Beyond the Bubble: More Complex Than Arts and Crafts

by Andrea Nease | 4/6/15 6:05pm

Have you ever thought of what defines a craftsman, of why we consider a craftsman to be different from an artist?

To begin with, the definition of a craftsman is, according to my Google search, “a person who is skilled in a particular craft” and its synonyms include artisan, artist, skilled worker and expert.

A definition listed for the word “artist,” on the other hand, describes it as, “a person who practices any of the various creative arts, such as a sculptor, novelist, poet or filmmaker; or a person skilled at particular occupation,” and lists such synonyms as designer, creator and originator.

While, it may seem like a trivial, even semantic question, the difference between a craftsman and an artist is actually quite complicated.

I remember attending a woodshop safety course last term in which one of the instructors touched upon craftsmanship. He discussed the pride of crafting a piece with integrity, of being a craftsman and producing a polished product. Not once did he mention art or artistry in his discussion. Out of curiosity, another student asked the instructor if he would consider himself an artist, and his answer was adamant — “I am a craftsman, not an artist.” Again, there seems to be a strong distinction between the terms, so much so that the instructor reacted to being labelled as an “artist.”

This class brought up several questions, like why craft and art are considered two separate modes of creation. Can woodworking only be a craft and painting be only an art? Do materials define your practice or does your approach as the creator? Prior to this experience in the woodshop, I had never even thought of these questions, let alone asked myself them. I ultimately think this divide is deeper than materiality of the work or the stereotypical associations with particular pursuits such as glass blowing, needlework and pottery.

I would argue that this divide is created by intent on the part of the maker. The reason we do not view a hand-worked dining table as a work of art is because of its functional ability — there are a hundred other tables made just like it, right? An object’s functionality does seem to determine how artistically precious we find that object.

Now, I understand the divide is being influenced by whether an object’s purpose is purely ornamental or functional, but I cannot seem to grasp why adding a functional dimension to the aesthetic somehow lessens an object’s value. The connotation of calling someone a craftsman is unbecoming when you think of why that distinction exists — it is as if you are saying, “You’re a master of the work and your pieces are beautiful, but they simply can’t be called art.”

Craft may be artful — but it’s not art. This hierarchal relationship between the two has become more commonplace in classifying what is art and what is not. I think craftsmanship is taken for granted because of a historical tradition of putting artists on a pedestal far above that on which pursuits such as woodworking, ceramics and jewelry making are placed. Don’t get me wrong — there are artists who make wood sculptures or use ceramics in their work, but a venue such as a woodshop typically bears connotations of craft rather than art.

Perhaps we should stop defining craftsmen by their materials and their trade. Rather, we should define the craftsman-artist divide by the intention of their final pieces and the conceptual creativity that drives them. Another perspective one can bring to the art versus craft debate is that it is not the material that defines a maker but rather the maker’s relationship with the material.

In my opinion, a craftsman will allow his or her material to limit the final product as the goal is to produce something beautiful out of the raw material. An artist on the other hand will manipulate his or her material in hopes of constructing a vehicle for his or her own conceptual designs.

So is an artist just a craftsman with conceptual drive and creativity whose final pieces are more discrete than functional and a craftsman is just an artist without intention? No.

As I have come to understand, intention and material, much more than function, influence the art-craft divide — a maker’s preference to be called an artist or a craftsman varies by culture and location of practice as well as by the individual’s understanding of craft and art.

There are so many aspects that can determine the differences between an artist and a craftsman that it is almost impossible to pin down a clear distinction and usage for each. Particularly due to their shifting definitions throughout history, it is difficult to produce any universal classifications of art versus craft.

Rather than trying to create a divide we should work to dismiss the pejorative nature of labeling something a craft instead of art. Artist is listed as a synonym for craftsman for a reason, so, we should treat them as synonyms with minimal difference. A woodworker should feel comfortable calling their handcrafted stool art just as a painter should feel comfortable calling their mural or painting their craft. Why not let them decide on their own how to define their work?

The College offers woodshop, jewelry-making and ceramic studio services to students, and I think every student should feel comfortable taking advantage of these facilities for their creations whether they identify as craftsmen or artists. I think a divide will always exist, but my hope is that the gap will take on a light of self-identification versus material-based exclusivity — wood does not necessarily denote craft just as painting does not inherently signify art.

When you think of your relationship with arts and crafts, remember that art is defined as, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Now go and craft some art!