Considerations of Art vs. Craft

The Art vs. Craft debate is a tension-filled topic that always tends to get people into knots. Before our BYOB Roundtable discussions on August 15, my husband and I sat down to brainstorm and spitball the various categories of creative activity. We quickly realized there are not just two categories of Art and Craft. This gets complicated. Here are some thoughts I wrote down from our conversation. I’m sharing this here to give us some common ground and food for thought rather than to rigidly define any category. This is a VERY nebulous topic, that we took much further in our BYOB Roundtable discussions.

Fine Art

  • One-off, single pieces
  • Vision or message conveyed
  • Conceptual rather than functional
  • Aesthetics supports the concept
  • Excellence only relevant if it supports the concept
  • Usually requires fine art education
  • Traditionally sold in galleries
  • Often perceived as high status
  • Limited to “traditional” media such as painting, fine sculpture

Fine Craft

  • One-off, single pieces
  • Functional item
  • Skillful mastery and craftsmanship is important
  • Aesthetics match convention or historical precedence
  • Often stylized according to the medium and historical precedence
  • Excellence is very important
  • Craftsmen often have a fine art education
  • Traditionally sold through craft shows, from workshops, through individuals
  • Usually includes media of ceramics, wood, metalsmithing, glass, fiber art, etc.

Commercial art/craft

  • Prototype made singly for mass reproduction
  • Created to fill a market need
  • Aesthetics match the market’s expectation
  • Very often stylized
  • Often evokes high-dopamine emotions such as sentimentality, belonging/tribalism, religion, sports teams
  • Excellence only as far necessary for commercial success
  • Education not important
  • Artists are often hired, the art sold through industry

Design/Illustration

  • Prototype made singly for mass reproduction
  • Created to convey a concept or idea
  • Aesthetics very important and usually reflect the client’s wishes
  • Excellence generally very important
  • Often university-educated
  • Usually designers are employed in a role or work freelance by project

Artisan or Cottage Craft

  • Small scale production of handmade goods
  • Either functional or decorative items
  • Small-batch or custom
  • Brand story is a large part of marketing
  • Aesthetics important, often integral with marketing
  • Education through learning from other masters
  • Sell product, often through marketplaces or direct to consumer
  • Kind of a nebulous category

Hobby

  • Mastery of a medium or process
  • Learned for fun and entertainment
  • Passion for the joy of creating
  • The art becomes activity, often social
  • Aesthetics highly individual, and often not a priority
  • Excellence often an afterthought
  • Usually self-guided learning through trial/error and taking master classes
  • Art is seldom sold, or just sold for “pin money”
  • Could be any medium

Craft

  • Object-based
  • Created for fun and entertainment
  • Item often used socially (a gift, a decoration, fashion)
  • Aesthetics pre-determined by the project writer
  • Stylized, matching the look of a teacher or writer
  • Excellence not a concern
  • Learning casually from books, handouts, short videos, and demonstrations
  • Not sold
  • Could be any medium, but often are the ones that children use in school

What does this mean?

Of course, this is just one way of sorting all of this out. This is just what my husband and I came up with as we tossed around ideas over coffee. As with all “systems”, there is a lot of room for personal interpretation here. We all see things slightly differently. (Which is why this topic is so hard.) The categories are not necessarily hard-and-fast. I tried to make this as a “word cloud” to more accurately show the overlaps of concepts, but I’m not a graphic designer. 🙂

Additionally, many of us use this same medium of polymer clay (or whatever medium we use) in different ways. I might use polymer to make a fine-art painting or I might make coasters to give as a gift. Same medium. Same artist. Totally different focus.

Historical Aspects

Another layer of this is the historical aspects of these activities and types of creative work. Fine art is a new concept that was born out of the 20th century. The industrial revolution, a growing leisure class, the need to stratify us vs them, the emergence of the internet and now the pandemic (plus many other factors) have all changed the landscape and cultural importance of these artistic endeavors. It’s not a simple “this is art and this is craft” conversation anymore!

Join the Roundtable

Speaking of conversation, we’re discussing this HUGE and rich topic in our BYOB Roundtable discussions on Sunday, August 15 at noon and 6pm Central US time. You can learn about them here. (And if you’re reading this after that date, you will be able to watch the recording instead.)