Art vs. Craft

Emily Sheehy reflects on the differences between the terms ‘art’ and ‘craft’ and the connotations that they carry.

The terms ‘art’ and ‘craft’ are often paired together but carry different connotations. When we think of art, we think of fine art, paintings, sculptures and galleries. We think of Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Rembrandt and Michelangelo. When we think of crafts, we think of children’s finger paintings or macaroni stuck to a page with PVA glue. A quick Google search for crafts gives us various websites of lists of activities to keep kids busy over the summer holidays. Crafts seem to have a childlike quality associated with them. We might also think of craftsmanship, such as a knitted jumper or an intricately designed wooden chair. Is there artistic merit to be found in a child’s drawing or a handmade everyday object? 

Is there artistic merit to be found in a child’s drawing or a handmade everyday object?

The website ‘Art in Context’ defines art as “expression of emotion and comes from the heart” while craft has a more functional purpose with certain structures. They state that art is created with “individual artistic merit and talent;” craft, on the other hand, comes from learned skill. These definitions ignore the emotions that can be found and expressed within handcrafted pieces. Crafts can also be viewed as an inward expression of the self, often holding a greater meaning to the creator regardless of its perceived artistic merit. Furthermore, their functionality should not erase a crafts’ potential to express emotions. These reductive definitions also promote the idea that artistic talent is something that people are born with, and obscures the fact that traditional artists also have to develop and learn their skills, similar to artisans. 

Artwork such as paintings and sculpture seem to have no other purpose  than to be looked at. We are encouraged to examine and appreciate its visual beauty and aesthetics, and question the meaning it communicates to us. In its lack of all other functionality, its only purpose becomes to be looked at, examined and appreciated. Craftwork, on the other hand, is associated with more functionality. We wear hand-knitted jumpers, eat off of ceramic plates, drink from glassware, sit on wooden chairs and wrap ourselves up in crocheted blankets. Its beauty and creation gets lost in its everyday use. 

Additionally, the vast majority of notable artworks that are showcased in galleries are created by white men. The mediums are generally limited to paintings and sculptures. These male artists define the standard of what constitutes ‘art.’ When we turn to other cultures and demographics, our possibilities of defining artwork is expanded. Western culture has deemed artwork by Asian, African or Indigenous cultures as ‘primitive’ and excludes these works from the canon of fine art, due to its ‘lack of innovation.’ However, there is a lot to be gained from studying other cultures’ approaches to art. For example, some Native American people place emphasis on the ritual and creation of a piece of art, as opposed to the finished product. While Western attitudes to art often focus primarily on the output and judge its merit and quality on the basis of the finished product, the Native American approach to artwork highlights for us the importance and enjoyment that can accompany the process.

We can see that a lot of activities that have been associated with women – such as sewing, knitting, embroidery and crochet – have been designated as crafts. These mediums convey women’s emotions and narratives, and were especially crucial during historical periods wherein women were excluded from the realm of fine art, as art schools only began admitting female students in the late 1800s. By designating such activities as crafts, we police who is included (and excluded) from the realm of art.

These distinctions between art and craft are upheld by the mythic status we give art. We place pieces of artwork on pedestals, quite literally, in museums and galleries. Spaces need to be created to appreciate crafts at the same value. The National Museum of Ireland’s Decorative Arts and History branch is an example of a space to learn and celebrate crafted pieces, with exhibits displaying a range of Irish jewellery, furniture, clothing and more. Perhaps we could also bring the same appreciation to works of craft when we attend craft fairs or markets.

Crafts are not superior to fine arts. But, the same appreciation and attention to crafts is well deserved, while having been traditionally ignored and their contribution to art history and culture dismissed. Both arts and crafts have the ability to communicate an important message and express emotions. Both can hold beauty and serve a certain purpose. Possibly it is time to do away with the ideas of ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’ and opt for a term such as ‘visual arts’ that encompasses both realms.