The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Art vs. Craft

This is my 100th post! Inspired by Pam and Mary’s recent conversation about “art” vs. “craft,” I’ll dedicate this post to that topic and solicit your opinions.

I’ll turn to Denis Dutton’s book once again for enlightenment. Like fine art, craft requires skill and competence. However, fine art needs “special talent,” as Dutton puts it. Craft, according to R.G. Collingwood, “is skilled work purposefully directed toward a final product or designed artifact; the craftsman knows in advance what the end product will look like.” The creation of art, unlike craft, is subject to a creative process that allows for some or total change while the work of art is being created. This is because the artist doesn’t follow a particular formula or recipe to create a painting. The painting emerges from the artist’s thoughts and ideas. Artists can change their minds during the process. By contrast, a craftsman who’s building a chair, for instance, can make no significant alterations to the chair plan or it won't function.

As Collingwood states, the arts are always open to the unexpected … a change in a single brushstroke can change not only the meaning of the work but the artist’s entire objective. Additionally, art expresses emotion by, as Dutton writes, “probing the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.” Only the artist has the ability to declare the endpoint to the work. For craft, the endpoint is predetermined.

Dutton also likens the difference between “craft” and “art” to the difference between a “paint by numbers” painting where the outcome is predetermined and the idea is not original to the painter, and a blank canvas that is painted by one who is rendering unique expression of a unique idea.

Your thoughts?


Unknown said...

Congratulations on your 100th post Katharine! Your followers grow as well as the word gets out about this very insightful and educational blog that pushes one to stretch their brain muscles once in a while.

I'm satisfied with Dutton's definition of craft. So that would include artists who copy Master's work also right?

Carolyn Abrams said...

I like Dutton's explanation also. It is only recently that i have come to realize how important content is to my work vs. painting my impression of a certain place, person or object. Both come from my creative soul but one has more depth and meaning than the other. it's an interesting point to think about. and yes we all grow with your blog Kathy! Thank you!

Dan Kent said...

Congratulations!!! 100 posts, wow! What amazes me is that your posts are always so comprehensive and interesting! Thank you for that. (I just regret the 70 some odd posts I missed! Have to go back and read em I guess..)

I never knew or understood the definition of a craft - this lays it out well. Of course, as I type, I begin to wonder if many activities that are identified as craft, such as jewelry making, if the craftsman employs discretion and creativity, would actually be art?

M said...

Good topic and one I've often thought about given my early introduction to craft. I agree with most of the comments attributed to Dutton but I think his is a narrow understanding of craft. Craft exists on a continuum. I would like to introduce the idea of fine craft , e.g, fiber artists, ceramics etc. There is definitely room for content and intent in this work. I have seen brilliant and provocative work from rug hookers,carvers and stained glass artists. I see this a no different from what I do as a painter.

I'm checking in on a friend's laptop and I need both time , my own files and a mouse to really work. Mine PC is in the hospital. I would love to provide links to back up what I'm saying but I'll have to wait for a future post.

hw (hallie) farber said...

The most beautiful piece of sculpture in my house is a shoe last--an iron foot attached to a wooden base with a beautifully turned brace. Brancusi would have admired it.

Friends have a beautiful chair from Africa--two chiseled slabs of dark, dense wood that fit together (like an X) and come apart--and it's comfortable. Is it a chair masquerading as sculpture, or sculpture pretending to be a chair?

I don't know if there was a predetermined endpoint for either of these--were they seeking beauty in addition to function? I have trouble drawing a definitive line between fine art and craft. Maybe the decision lies with the viewer.

Here's to another 100!

Anonymous said...
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Mary Paquet said...

100 posts -- that means I have many more historical posts to read. So happy that I found your blog.

Such an interesting discussion. The more we attempt to define the differences, the more grey areas surface.

Myrna Wacknov said...

I have to totally disagree with Dutton's definition of craft. If he is right, most paintings will fall into the "craft" category and I know many fine utilitarian pieces that are "art" with a capital "A". I define craft work to be art applied to an object that has a useful purpose. Whether it is "art" is determined by the same standards as I would use for painting, sculpture, etc. Have you ever seen a pair of shoes designed and crafted by Gaza Bowen? Now there is original art!

-Don said...

I just realized I never came back to leave a comment on yesterday's interesting kitsch discussion. But, as I read today's interesting craft discussion I think I can kill two proverbial birds here with one stone (word)...



Unknown said...

Great discussion, everyone! Thank you. Don, I like your summary word.

Celeste Bergin said...

Congratulations on your 100th post, Kathy!
This whole art vs craft thing is such a can of worms! I think I will just say that I love things that are "done well". I enjoy how one of the drawers in my studio closes (with precision!) and I also appreciate how the scribbles on Dave's granddaughter's finger painting looks like the finest Calligraphy I've ever seen. I DON'T like careless things --things that seem "phoned in"--I think you know what I mean.

Denis Dutton said...

I cannot tell you all how much I have enjoyed the comments here and in the previous posts. And congratulations, Katharine, on your 100th post!

My discussion of art vs. craft is about ideal types, and there are grays areas between the extreme ends of this black and white distinction. Nevertheless, we can see that a cook who carefully follows a recipe, and painter who fills in numbered spaces, or a mechanic turing my old chevy are craftspeople: they know in advance pretty much what they trying to achieve before they take the first step. Theirs may be skilled and demanding work, but it is carried out with a preconceived end in mind.

At the other end of the continuum is the ideal type of the artist. She might have an end in mind, but if she completely changes her mind about what she wants halfway through the poem or the painting or the sonata or the novel, it's just normal creative artistry. (In craft work that would mean confusion!) No artist in applying the first stroke of pigment on the canvas can know in advance exactly what the end product will look like. We pay dentists, on the other hand, because they know what the the end product will be when they start out. (Accountants too, unless they engage in creative accounting which is not such a good thing.)

My ideas on this are set out here:

Much discussion of the book is here:

BTW, I'm speaking in at the Smithsonian in D.C. on Feb 16th:

But please don't allow my butting in to dimish the discussion. I've much enjoyed the many comments. These are difficult issues and there are lots of ways of looking at them.

Best wishes,

Denis Dutton

Unknown said...

Prof. Dutton - thank you for adding clarification and substance to this lively discussion! I was hoping that you'd weigh-in and I can only add encouragement to others to purchase and read your marvelous book. As you know, I've skipped over large and important portions of your work in order to bring certain ideas to my blog. In so doing, I hope I didn't misrepresent your work.
It would be wonderful to hear you speak at the Smithsonian! I live too far away, but perhaps some of my readers can attend.
Thank you, again, for reading and commenting!

Anonymous said...

Katharine, I have come to your blog from Chris Beck's feature on you...and wanted to say phenomenal work...but was delighted to read all the wonderful articles and resulting discussions here...thank you for your contribution to the art community. I look forward to following.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Julie! I appreciate your generous comments and hope that you'll feel free to join our "conversations" on this blog.

Mark Sheeky said...

Interesting and good point Dutton makes! The more you plan, the more crafty you become. This also implies that a craftsman who fails to make a plan... is an artist!

Denis Dutton said...

Mark Sheeky has it right.

Essentially, artists are people who don't know what they're doing!

A joke, of course, but one that reveals something oddly true.

Here's another implication. The craftsman know in advance when he'll be finished. For the artist, that is always a big question. Even when you think you're finished, you may change your mind. (Or, in the case of painting, wish you'd quit half an hour ago.)


Unknown said...

Mark and Denis: you just made my day!! :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy and all above,
Professor Dutton's use of "continuum" sparked a brain cell in my head. The art or craft work that's done on the "ends", where definitions fit, we understand and easily recognize as art or craft. It's that gray stuff in the middle!
Fun discussion.

Anonymous said...

Congrats Kathy, On your 100th post and for being featured on Chris Beck's "Brush-Paper-Water"; wonderful!

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy, I like the word "continuum" as well. Thanks for focus on that. And thank you for visiting Chris' blog. She did a great job!

Gene and Charli said...

I quill. Quilling is an ancient art form that uses strips of paper to create breathtaking art pieces. We have been fighting the whole craft vs art BS for as long as I've quilled (over 50 years). I agree with you it a can of worms and love Dutton's definition of art. In fact I'm posting a link in our quillers forum to this posting. Thank you

Dorote said...

Hello lovely people, I have been reading this interesting post, and I thought I should add my 5 cents. :)
I must agree that when it comes about crafts - the description given above is pretty much correct, how ever when it comes about art - well I'd say it doesn't really describe art at all.
First of all, there are different types of artists - some like to take a brush/clay/wood etc. and just to get carried away. So yes, they most probably have no idea where they will finish. BUT - there are also artists who are carrying their ideas in their head for a loooong time, until they have a clear view of what they are going to create and how their piece is going to look like, what materials it will be made from and in which technique. When those artists take their brush/clay/wood etc. they are going straight ahead to the piece they have created in their head.

So I would say, that what makes an artist different from the craftsmen is the moment of creativity.
The other, I would say even more important part of an art work is the idea behind it, the story that the artist is telling, the feeling, the emotion that the artist has put in to it. If those are absent - then it is a nice piece of craft-work.

Now with all what I've said, I still don't see a reason for trying to label things this way, as the same person who has been crafting all his/her life can come with some great idea and create something soulful and unique which will be a piece of art; also the artist who is creating new unique pieces can start repeating his/her own work, making limited edition and for that moment it will be just crafting. :)