Is it art or just craft?


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 10 January 2012  Updated: 21 January 2012:  fixed the image display problem

This is my personal opinion.  If you wish, you can send comments
on this topic to me at cdoswell & (use the hyperlink or cut and paste, replacing _&_ with @).  I reserve the right to post your comments on this page and perhaps respond to them, unless you give me a good reason why you want to remain anonymous.


My colleague and friend Robin Tanamachi brought up something during our Friday evening get-together (the FAC - Friday Afternoon Club) that hit a responsive note with my wife.  If there's any thread common to all the members of my family, it's art.  My daughter Heather has a B.A. in fine arts from OU in Art and engages in many art forms including music (she has a heavenly voice), my son Chad has a B.A. in fine arts from OU in Music performance and has been a professional musician for most of his life, my wife Vickie has been involved in various "crafts" for as long as I've known her, and I've inherited the artistic leaning from my father and his sisters, who were painters - I used to draw and paint, but photography pretty much took over after my time in Vietnam.

At any rate, Robin's point was that the name "craft" often has been applied to the creative work that women did as a way of implying that it was something less than "real art".  I always begin discussions like this by going to the dictionary:

ART - noun
1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.
3. a field, genre, or category of art: Dance is an art.
4. the fine arts collectively, often excluding architecture: art and architecture.
5. any field using the skills or techniques of art: advertising art; industrial art.
CRAFT - noun
1. an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill: the craft of a mason.
2. skill; dexterity: The silversmith worked with great craft.
3. skill or ability used for bad purposes; cunning; deceit; guile.
4. the members of a trade or profession collectively; a guild.
5. a ship or other vessel.
Curiously, craft is defined as an art!  Hopefully, the definitions inapplicable to this discussion can be recognized and ignored.  Trades like masonry certainly wouldn't be considered art traditionally.  I find it interesting that architecture is excluded from the fine arts. 

A listing of the traditional "arts" might include:

  1. Visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.)
  2. Drama - to include both creation and performance
  3. Music - to include both creation and performance
  4. Dance - to include both creation and performance

Opera combines visuals, drama and music.  Dance and music obviously can be combined into ballet.  Thus, various combinations of these elements are considered among the arts.  Anyway, the question of what is "true art" is one that's been debated for a long time and I have no reason to believe that this essay is going to settle the issue in a definitive fashion, but it's designed to express my opinions, so here goes ...

On the distinction

Traditionally, visual arts have been limited to paintings and sculpture.  For a long time, photography was not considered art by the arbitrary dictates of those who presumably "governed" the arts, and then when it was conceded later that photography could be true art, it was decided that only black-and-white photography was art.  A few years back, after it was granted that color images could be true art, I was considering entering some photographs in an art show and was informed that a 35 mm photograph couldn't be art - it had to be medium format or larger!
There's an apparently clear distinction between snapshots ("Here's my family with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland!") and artistic photography.  When I began storm chasing, this distinction seemed to apply to what I was doing:  one set of images documented the storms I was seeing, and another set comprised what I called "artsy-craftsy" images specifically intended to serve as artistic images of what I was seeing on the Plains.  With time, as I learned more about photography, the distinction between these two sets of images got pretty fuzzy and has disappeared for the most part by now.  There's a spectrum of intent that ranges from pure "documentation" to pure "artistic visual imagery".  I apply what I've learned about craftsmanship using a camera to virtually all my photographs now.
I mention this because what happened to my photography was that I had to become adept at the craft associated with photography before I could use the camera as a medium of artistic expression.  In the same way that one has to learn the craft of painting to become an artistic painter, or the craft of sculpture to become an artistic sculptor, every art form involves craftsmanship.  You have to learn how to make the medium do what you want to do.  Without craftsmanship, I believe there can be no art.  Just throwing paint at a canvas, or knocking random chips from stone doesn't create art, as I see it.  Art has to involve creation, not random accidents.  But art is something more than craftsmanship.  Snapshots are justifiably not considered art because of the intent of the photographer.  The snapshot photographer has no intent to express an explicit or implicit message inherent to the image.  What is the intent of the artist when applying the craft s/he has learned to create a work of true art?  In many cases, the goal is to create an emotional response:  joy, sorrow, peace, solemnity, awe, nostalgia, anger, horror, excitement.  If the artist produces an emotional response in the viewer of his/her artwork, this is considered a success.

In photography, the photojournalist may not be intending to produce an emotional response - merely seeking documentation.  But some images succeed in creating an emotional response anyway.  Consider the iconic photo of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during World War II, taken by Joe Rosenthal:

famous flag raising photo

This image's intent was purely for documentation, but the power of the image has overcome the intentions of the photographer!  Is this art?  I leave it up to my readers, but I have to say that it sure looks like art to me!  The same could be said of many of the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs.  It's conceivable that some snapshots may transcend their intent, as well.

More on the distinction

OK - so far, so good - now, what about the work of tradespeople:  masons, silversmiths, furniture makers, architects, blacksmiths, glassblowers, construction workers?  There are many trades that involve craftsmanship that has to be learned, often achieving a high level only after years of hard work and devotion to the craft.  I'm going to provide a few examples of how it's at least possible to see some of the work of tradespersons as art.

If human glassblowers were involved in producing bottles for soft drinks, rather than machines, no one would be likely to single out a particular soft drink bottle and call it a work of art.  The goal for the craftsman, if there were any, would be to produce thousands of identical bottles that would be indistinguishable from those produced by his fellow workers.  But if we consider the coke bottle as an icon, which it has become, then the image can indeed produce an emotional response:

image of Coke bottle

The person who designed this bottle was an artist, but the glassblowers who turned them out weren't even remotely interested in creating art.  The intent of the manufacturing was to provide thousands of identical examples of a recognizable product on the shelf.  That's all.  The coke bottle has become iconic over time, although it likely wasn't considered so at the time it was introduced.  In a similar vein, consider Andy Warhol's painting of a soup can:

soup can painting image

implicitly recognizes this aspect of commercial design.  Some designs become transcendent.  The ordinary can be extraordinary if we just look carefully.

Consider the hundreds of craftsmen who produced the gargoyle sculptures on medieval cathedrals.  These people worked in total anonymity producing sculptures as decorations, although perhaps some of them served such utilitarian purposes as drains, albeit rather ornate drains.  Is their work art?

gargoyle image

Suppose you say these gargoyles are not art because they're merely decorations on a building.  If that's so, what about Michaelangelo?  Generally, Michaelangelo is considered one of the world's great artists for producing, among other art, the frescoes adorning the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.  These are almost certainly recognized universally as true art, but are they not merely decorations on a building?  Objectively, what's the difference?

Sistine Chapel - the touch of life

Another example of a blurred distinction is the famous "illustrator" Norman Rockwell.  His work adorned the covers of magazines (notably, the Saturday Evening Post) depicting various aspects of life in America.  The art snobs generally denigrated his work as "mere illustration" and not genuine art.  What do you think of his work?  He certainly was a craftsman, and some of his images are now recognized as iconic.  Would you choose to call him an artist or relegate him to the lower status of being just an illustrator?

Rockwell Thanksgiving image

My wife's art/craft

So long as I've known her, my wife Vickie has been heavily involved in "crafts" such as needlework, knitting, macramé, tole painting, dressmaking and sewing, etc.  Right now she's deeply committed to paper crafts and scrapbooking, to such an extent that she's even teaching classes in the topic.  Needless to say, she picked right up on what Robin was saying about denigrating women's creative work as mere "craft" rather than art.  I've always seen Vickie's work as art, so I have no problem with that.  Why does something utilitarian, like a quilt or a cookie box or a photo album, make its creation "just craft" and not "true art"?  The media used for such art have been used almost exclusively by women as a way to be creative.  Women also have become photographers, sculptors, painters, singers, songwriters, actors, etc. - all the traditional "art" media - and some are highly successful contributing artists in those traditional media.  I won't even bother listing some examples of that - too obvious. 

Nevertheless, we live in a society that persists in belittling the abilities and accomplishments of women.  Despite considerable progress made in the USA and other societies, the persistent stereotypes remain.  The default assumption continues to be applied - if a woman did it, it just can't be worth much.  I can't even imagine what it would be like to have to live with this attitude for a lifetime.   More progress is needed!

My wife now considers herself to be an artist, and I couldn't agree more!  I've felt that way all along.  For years, Vickie devalued her own abilities as just "crafts" and not art - why?  Because that's been the default assumption of the society in which she was raised - she hasn't lived in a vacuum, after all!  She's finally overcome those externally-imposed constraints to assert her artistic creativity, and I'm very proud of her for that.  I don't care what some art snobs might think - what Vickie does is art to me and always has been!


But what about these "homemaker" media?  It seems the media are the issue.  Just as cameras at first were rejected as the medium of an artist, these traditional crafts have been relegated to the status of non-art.  Is it conceivable that craftspersons using these media really should be considered artists?  Not all of them, for sure.  Mere craft is still a worthwhile contribution, is it not?  When my wife takes an old can that originally contained a whisky bottle and turns it into something very different from its original form by employing her crafts, does the fact that it still can serve a utilitarian purpose disqualify her creativity from the realm of "true art"?  Consider the examples I've provided.  Is it only art when the artist and the work become famous?  Is it only art when it's displayed in an "art" museum? 

It's my belief that craftsmanship on its own, however refined and admirable, doesn't make the work into art.  The intent of the work's creator is a big part of the issue, but I think I've suggested that this likely isn't the discriminating factor, either.  It seems that some creations achieve a status far beyond the intent of the creator.  Most anyone looking at it would say "Now that's a work of art!"  Some creations transcend their lowly utilitarian purpose and become iconic - recognizable instantly and evocative of emotions despite their seemingly humble origins.  Some creators simply churn out humdrum examples of their craft, being perfectly suited to their modest goal of serving some purpose.  Such craftspersons are to be admired for their anonymous contributions to everyone's well-being.  Their creations are successful and useful to society, but not art.

On the other hand, a few creators produce something very special - a quality that we can all recognize when we see it - whatever their intentions might be in creating it.  Their work soars beyond the humble medium and becomes true art.  I don't know how I would define it in mere words, so it seems my conclusion is:  I don't know how to define the difference between art and craft, but I know it when I see it!  Naturally, it's quite possible in this situation that there might be some disagreement.  Some work in some media are so obviously in the category of art that no reasonable person could dispute its status.  But it's quite conceivable that in some cases, reasonable people would disagree.  This is a pretty unsatisfactory situation for a scientist, but it seems inevitable that the boundary between art and craft will continue to be a bone of contention.  Since I can't solve the problem definitively, this is where I'm going to have to leave it.