i wrote this essay a few weeks ago for my arts reporting class. the assignment was to write an essay on the arts topic of my choosing. this is an issue i've been thinking about since the beginning of the semester in this class. i don't think i presented any revolutionary insight or anything, but it was fun to argue a point that i actually care about. plus i got an A. hooray!
Art vs. Craft: A Class War
In the world of handmade goods, there are two kinds of people: artists and crafters. Artists get to make art – we “ooh” and “ahh” at their sculptures, the paintings we often only pretend to understand, and their cutting-edge mixed media presentations. We hold their works up on a pedestal, the pedestal of the museum or gallery, which lets us know that these are works of art.
Crafters get to make crafts – macaroni necklaces, glitter-painted sweatshirts, and macramé oven mitts – or at least that’s an answer you might get from someone on Team Artist. In actuality, the world of craft goes far beyond kindergarten-level collage assembly to encompass an endless amount of inspired, aesthetically pleasing, and dare I say – artistic – objects and entities. Why, then, is there such a distinction, a class hierarchy, if you will, between artists and crafters?
Before attempting to answer such a question, it is important to understand the makeup of these two categories of creators. Artists are painters, sculptors, potters, printmakers, and filmmakers. Often referred to as “visual artists,” they are trained in the discipline of creating objects to behold, forsaking any means of functionality.
Craft, though, is a commonly used synonym for “skill.” Crafters are woodworkers, weavers, metalsmiths, knitters, fashion designers, and, like some artists, mixed media creators. They are trained to create pieces that, along with their form, often provide a function, and therein lies the fundamental difference between art and craft. The usefulness of a handmade object has become the determining factor for its social standing among creators.
Are the worlds of art and craft really so different, though? Both usually involve an element of natural talent, and both often require some level of formal training to develop necessary skills. The traditional labels and separations between “fine arts” and “everything else” create an unnecessary barrier between these different groups of creators. But maybe with some more awareness, more conversation will circulate to provide a little more legitimacy to crafting.
A common misconception is that art is emotional and craft is cerebral. These sweeping generalizations miss the mark on both disciplines, as both art and craft require both emotion and thought. A painter must feel a connection to the image he paints, but he must also thoughtfully consider technique, color, and composition. Likewise, a knitter applies careful deliberation to decisions about color, texture, and pattern, but also connects emotionally with the act of creation itself.
Ask a woodworker if he puts his heart and soul into the ornate chairs or shelves he creates; I guarantee he will answer with an emphatic “yes.” Does the fact that a person can keep warm with a knitted blanket or sit in a handcrafted chair really make these objects any less artistic?
Affordability is another issue that has contributed to the existing wall between art and craft. Often handmade objects that qualify as craft are far more financially accessible than works of art in a gallery. Craft fairs and festivals exist as an avenue for crafters to sell their goods, as do handmade shops like Etsy.com. On the other hand, the price of a painting or sculpture is what dictates its status, and the owner adopts that same status upon purchasing it. While handmade items sold at craft fairs may fail to deliver a similar message of value and worth, they still maintain the same qualities as expensive works of art: vision, skill, imagination, and style, and should, in return, receive the same respect and admiration so often showered upon fine artists.
As a crafter, I have said on multiple occasions that I am not an artist, but crafting is as close as I will ever come to being one. I don’t create art for a living, but I do sew some of my own clothes. I don’t anticipate that I will ever create something that will be on display in a museum, but I do take pride in assembling my own unique handmade home décor. With creation comes a constant mingling of cathartic release and nervous excitement – What will this item turn out to be? – a question, I’m sure, professional artists frequently ask themselves as they work.
So am I really just a crafter? Is a fashion designer just a fashion designer or a weaver just a weaver and neither of them artists? Perhaps looking beyond traditional titles and labels to the heart of creation will lead you to answer “no” instead of insisting on perpetuating stereotypes or viewing the world of craft as an inferior category.