what really separates art from craft?

There is a fine line between art and craft.

Ever heard anyone say that before? Its true. There is a fine line between art and craft, and more and more that line is becoming blurry. In fact, its becoming so blurry that many of us, can’t see the difference anymore. After all, in the last five years there has been quite a surge in artists who are now embracing specific craft techniques in their work. And there is, in many ways, an art to crafting: a certain finesse needed to get the job done right.

Let’s take quilting for example. The amount of time and dedication alone that goes into making a quilt is often times quite intense. I watched my grandmother spend months, even years sometimes, slowly working on each individual square of a giant quilt. Those quilts would eventually be displayed at her monthly Quilting Circle (of over 50 quilters), to only then, be neatly folded and put away in a chest, only to come back out again on special occasions. And although she was following a pattern most of the time, she was (and still is) a very talented craftsperson. One with dedication and drive. And most certainly one with passion. But does that make her an artist? I don’t know.

So what about those people who take it one step further? The ones that leave the confines of patterns and rules and create something completely original and inspiring in a field that traditionally has been considered a craft? Are they artists? In my mind, yes. Absolutely! Take the work of Carrie Strine (above left) and Kerry Larkin (above right) for example. These ladies are talented artists who are really defining what quilting now is and what it can be. Their work invokes something in me; inspires me to think beyond the traditional boxes of art and craft.

So what really separates art from craft? To be honest, it is not my intention to truly answer this question here, but rather start a dialogue with you loyal Scoutie Girl readers, whom I imagine have quite an opinion on this. I’d love to know your thoughts, so if you wouldn’t mind sharing your personal opinion on the subject, that would be awesome.

image credit: Kerry Larkin quilt; mistletoe mini quilt; Kerry Larkin quilt

27 thoughts on “what really separates art from craft?

  1. VERY interesting post Brittni – a question that I am thinking about for a while now.

    I do not really have an answer though…I think I agree with you. Maybe a crafter becomes an artist at that point when s/he developes an old idea into something new by adding, transforming or whatever. But this also raises the question: what is “new”?

  2. this is interesting and much of my art-work to date has been exploring this subject area. I understand ‘craft’ as in the item/object is something that can be reproduced to a set pattern time and again. Art on the other hand is a one-off unique original – this for me would include a quilt as I think many are ‘master pieces’ (or as is often the case ‘mistress’ pieces!). However craft-based medium in art are where the lines get blurred.

    For example, if as an artist you make one off unique art pieces but you use paper, fabric etc then you are still associated and possibly known as a craft or textile person rather than a fine artist, and this for me is questionable. I trained as a fine artist and use textiles and stitching in my work but I don’t call myself a crafts-person or a textile artist. I think it’s time certain associations changed for the better. One example is how much a person can charge for a painting versus a craft-media piece of art . . . . just my thoughts :)

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Brittni! As a traditional quilter who developed into an artist, I have thought long and hard about this. Rather than write a novel, I think I can sum up my feelings this way: An artist is one who is compelled to create things that are THEIRS. Although exactly defining what this means is hard, I think it’s a grand start to figuring this out!

  4. Such a challenging question, Brittni! As a designer, I feel like I often walk a similar line between design and art. I can remember my four years in fine art school, two of which were spent in an intensive design studio. Some teachers insisted design was not art, while others weren’t so sure. I think in the same vein, craft and art converge and diverge at times. It’s so hard to pinpoint where and why, but I think intent and perspective (of the viewer and the creator) have a lot to do with things.

    Aaannnnd with that said, I must admit I don’t have a concrete answer, either … :)

  5. Personally I don’t really care if someone is an artist or crafter (or shall I throw into the mix a designer who is also a maker?). I’m bored with this discussion, it has been going round and round and round and I think what is important to anyone who is creative and making stuff is that they are using their own authentic voice to do so. OK, so no copying other peoples stuff, no following patterns and calling it your own etc…

    I believe that this question goes back centuries to the artist/apprentice formula . An apprentice had to learn the “Craft” of creating something artistic before they were recognized as an artist of their own unique work. I can’t stand seeing something badly crafted not matter what you call it . However you define yourself you should be concerned with striving for the highest quality of “Craftsmanship”.

    If I HAD to define it I would say that an artist is that person who takes it a step beyond creating something using a prescribed pattern.

    1. Heather, I love that you say you’re bored with this discussion and then provide such an original & insightful answer!!

      Seriously, sometimes these questions that can seem very tired still have so much relevance to the way we perceive ourselves & others. To me, it’s not the question or the answer that matters – it’s the process of exploring what it means to you within a community of artist/crafter/maker/designers.

      Thanks for offering your two cents!

  6. Leo Tolstoy wrote extensively about this. One idea he presented which is relevant is: “Art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost. In order to be able to speak about the art of our society, it is, therefore, first of all necessary to distinguish art from counterfeit art.” So we are back to what is “not art”… a harder question to answer, I think, than what is!

    But prior to that, Tolstoy says: “In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.”

    This observation is, I think, a key lens to viewing crafting versus art. Art is NOT about pleasure, but so much of crafting is precisely about pleasure. If the crafted item pursues the HIGHER level of acting as a “means of intercourse” then it becomes art.

    I don’t think he means that is just creates conversation, either. This is more along the lines of the art ITSELF redirecting the conversation!

    Unfortunately, this means that a great deal of craft isn’t art. However, the TREND in the homemade is the conversation thread, so if the art is being made in order to satisfy a part of that conversation– the art itself asks or answers some questions — then it moves again to the position of art.

  7. I feel that art doesn’t have to have a message or start a conversation or serve a higher purpose than its existence. Art is art because of the emotion it stirs in the beholder. (In my opinion, art should have beauty as its goal, but it’s a narrow view. Lots of art isn’t beautiful at all.) The process of creating art is the alchemy of distilling emotion into a creation. Craft can be artfully made, unique and evocative, but it also serves a useful purpose. A well turned bowl, a knitted scarf, something whose usefulness is its priority is a craft. Being creative is a life force nearly as strong as love and the will to survive. It is a human imperative.

  8. I would be inclined to view “art” and “craft” as the extremes of a spectrum rather than different sides of a coin, so to speak. The “craft” end of the spectrum starts with “I made this using a prescribed pattern and followed every single step” – crocheting something from a pattern or even something like paint my numbers. The “art” side of the spectrum is “this creation comes totally from within me” (which can lead into discussions about whether anything is really original, I guess, but I think that’s a bit off topic so I won’t mess with it). You’ve got stuff in the middle, people tweaking instructions or patterns to suit them or get their message or emotions across, too.

    Which is not to say that something from the “craft” end of the spectrum can’t also be beautiful, but I think the person making it is probably coming from a different place.

  9. I’m with Elizabeth here. I think of art as a conversation – it starts first as a conversation between the artist & the materials/forms/muse, and when it’s completed it then becomes a conversation between the artwork and the viewer.

    I also think that when a work transcends the craftmanship itself, it’s art – whether it’s a “craft item”, painting, or whatever. It’s why I consider Denyse Schmidt to be an artist, because she took the old paradigm of quilt patterns & brought forth a new conversation about quilting. (I’m just not so sure if her mass-produced quilt line should be considered art, since they’re just following established patterns now too. Kind of the way I wonder if Warhol’s work stopped being art once it became formulaic & churned out like a factory.)

    Sometimes too you can look at a painter’s portfolio starting with early works onward & see the point at which they went from student-quality to when their talent really blossomed. The early work that is more about mastering the technical aspects of art – is that art yet, or just craft?

  10. Great topic! I think one thing that sets art & craft apart is intention. There are times when I’m making something one of a kind that I’ve put tons of thought into and feel really inspired about…. like I have to make it or I’ll go crazy. That’s art to me, whether it is painting, sculpture, quilting, embroidery, or whatever. Other times I just want to make something cute and useful and that’s when I feel like a crafter.

  11. This is a question that remind me of my own work.
    Im a graphic designer, and I remember when I was on school, a lot of people asking the question about “design is art?”; and everybody have their own answer; something like… design is art when the time made a poster (for example) in a piece of art…; design can not be art because is not a true expresion of themselves…; design can not be art because…. anyway there are a lot of answers

    Personally, I think real art its when your work makes every person make their own story about it

  12. During the Middle Ages “an artist was someone able to do a work better than others, so the skilled excellency was underlined, rather than the activity field.” (wikipedia)

    Under the term art/artist, there are a lot of categories. If you like to make/write/sing/etc. stuff…great! If someone wants to buy/watch/listen/etc. to your stuff….super!

  13. I am loving this conversation! I am glad to see writing brought into it by some of the comments (as a writer not a painter, sculpter, quilter…). There is something to the idea that art is both bigger than craft in medium…but also more narrow in terms of expression.

  14. In my opinion our-days artists offer a new way of seeing our society.
    So no the two quilting artisans here are no artists imho.

    An artist uses whatever technique he wants which can be quilting but gives a meaning to his art. It’s not just good looking or original, there is a meaning and a idea (philosophical) behind it.

    Artists show the world and they society we live in within a certain angle.
    They’re not unique or original, they have a strong controversial point of view and share it.

    In a way there are the new philosophers of our time.

  15. This is a very interesting post and something that I have thought about often myself. I see myself as somewhere in between an “artist” and a “crafter” Yes, what I do takes skill and vision and isn’t something that just anyone can pick up and replicate but does it belong in a museum? Not really. I like the term artisan. Wikipedia defines it as “a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items, and tools”. I guess it’s all a matter of how you see yourself.

  16. What an inspiring discussion to wake up to!
    “Art” to me, means a type of communication that, if even just for an instant, makes a person mentally STOP and just experience it.
    If it inspires discussion and rearranging a person’s assumptions, so much the better.
    I wish people would do that with the spoons and such that I make, but my customers are more likely to get them in their hands and enjoy the feel, think about making and enjoying good food, and so on.
    I often just hold something I’ve made and savor the texture, shape and feel- for me it’s Art, but I can’t necessarily assume that anyone else is going to call it art.

  17. Really wonderful conversation here. I think about this a lot with my work. Whether I am crocheting from a pattern or painting on a canvas, I feel the same strong inner desire to create. I think it only becomes art when it reaches that level of “conversation”. A boundary is crossed. Something has been pushed further. It doesn’t need to be a verbal conversation. It can be an emotional one, or a technical one, but I think I agree with Tolstoy that there must be an “intercourse.”

  18. In my opinion the difference between art and craft is originality. Just like you stated in your article. To be innovative and explore the boundaries of the possible. It is not necessary for an artist to be an expert craftsperson..though it helps :)

  19. I am in art school right now and we are required to take certain number of art history classes before we graduate. “What is art?” is a popular question that many of the students like to debate back and forth while we look art from history. When I hear this question, I always think of Duchamp and the urinal that he flipped upside down, signed, and placed in a museum and called it art. That stirred up such great controversy then and it still does today.
    For me, I believe that pieces become art when it is able to stir up a certain reaction from the viewer whether it be joy or fury. Anybody can learn the technical skills to draw, paint, sculpt, quilt, write, etc but it’s when you step beyond the technicality and start developing concepts and ideas that it truly becomes art.
    Whenever we are critiquing our work, our professors are always asking “Why did you make this? What is it that you wanted to share with us?” I think that when you are asking that question for yourself and your work, that is when you become an artist.

  20. Every generation produces artists who challenge their contemporaries notions of art. I also like to think of Duchamp; the Impressionists, Dada and the Surrealists did the same, Brecht did the same for theatre, Rachmaninov did it for music, when people display photography painters said it wasnt art, now people who use manual cameras distinguish themselves from those who use digital cameras and photoshop. It looks like a rolling revolution

    There is no answer to this question because the answer depends on the context, the culture, the time frame and the relative position you take.

    I studied visual art and exhibited sculpture, ceramic sculpture and drawings, then travelled the country and lived in my car and made installations out of found objects and scrap, then I went to design school and learnt to make clean precise scale models and measured drawings, now I do leatherwork, each piece is handmade and one of a kind, but I am leaning to use a machine to increase my range and skills.

    Maybe design, and art and craft are all of a process, and a level of skill, and a way of perceiving other peoples creations

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