Contextual Categories: Art and Craft

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Art vs Craft

As someone who studied Fine Art, and now employing material processes which many consider to be ‘Crafts’, I have increasingly found myself giving more thought to issues which relate to this debate.

The boundaries between Art and Craft have been contested for long time now with Craft often coming off worse – often being associated with amateurism and craft fairs. It is an argument that continues today; I for one know a fair few ceramicists in particular who continue to struggle with this debate.

It surprises me somewhat however that the debate hasn’t really developed beyond pitting one against the other. The question still asked is something akin to; “Is this work Art or is it Craft?”

Art and Craft are different. Art is not Craft and Craft is not Art. Likewise Illustration is not Art and Art is not Illustration; Photography is not Art and Art is not Photography; Painting is not Art and Art is not Painting.

These terms are independent of one another and describe niche disciplines or areas of intellectual or material processes within the arts.

If we consider “image X”, for example, it might be widely be agreed that that this work is an Illustration. However, that does not mean to say that “Image X” cannot also be Art.

In fact “Image X” might reasonabley be considered to be Illustration, Art, Drawing, Design and Painting all at the same time.

Contextual Categories

These categories that we apply to describe creative works are fluid. They are independent of one another and there is absolutely no reason why we cannot apply more than one of them to any individual piece of work.

So returning to Craft let us consider “Object Z” which is widely agreed to be Craft. There is absolutely no reason why this piece of work cannot simultaneously be considered Art.

In fact if “Object Z” happened to be one of my own embroideries, for example, Synchronous Hermaphrodites, I would be as comfortable labelling this work as Art as I would Craft as well as Textiles, Drawing and Fibre Art amongst others.

All of these labels are applicable in helping to define this piece of work. Labelling it as only Craft rejects the research that went into developing the themes that I am trying to explore through the work. On the other hand labelling it as only Art ignores the time and effort that was put into realising the outcome of my research.

Of course some may not agree that all of these labels are appropriate to describe my work. That some might find it difficult to consider one of my Synchronous Hermaphrodites embroideries as Drawing is understandable. Categories are contextual and specific to an individual as Daniel Levitin argues in his book “This is Your Brain on Music”. Levitin states that one person’s Heavy Metal music might be another person’s Rock music. Continuing with this vain of thought it is reasonable to assert that one person’s Art might be another person’s Craft and even another’s Illustration.

This argument for contextual categories is supported by John Carey. In his book “What Good Are The Arts?” Carey argues that anything can be Art if someone considers that something to be Art. The rationale that one might apply to a piece of work in order to categorise it might include any number of things such as education or the influence of friends and acquaintances amongst others.

So whilst I might consider “Object Z”, which we have widely agreed to be Craft, to also be Art, the next person may disagree and consider the work to be perhaps both Craft and Illustration but not Art.

Individual Perspectives

In his article in Crafty Magazine Issue 3, Jamie Chalmers aka Mr X Stitch postulates that a lay person might categorise work thusly; “This is a painting, therefore it’s art. That is a cross stitch therefore it’s craft”.

This might be true for that individual but that is not to say that the cross stitch mentioned might also be considered Art by the next person. The qualities that one individual looks for in a piece of work to identify which categories should be applied to it may differ considerably depending on many external factors.

Chalmers goes on to state that “to decide that work made with a needle and thread can’t be art is rubbish”.

But is it not rubbish to so swiftly belittle someone else’s opinion as to what is Art and what is not?

After all we are not all engaged with the arts to the same degree. We are all different, a fact that we are regularly encouraged to celebrate, and the combinations of criteria that we might apply to categorise a piece of work might vary infinitely.

Back in school I remember that a large preponderance of the work studied and created during art classes revolved around painting, drawing and occasionally sculpture. Assuming that art lessons around the country are delivered in similar ways due to the National Curriculum it would be understandable that many people whose engagement with the arts ended after the completion of their GCSEs, if not earlier, might apply such critique as “This is a painting, therefore it’s art”. If they never acquired any experience of working with stitch during art classes then the possibility of cross stitch being considered Art may never have entered into their mind.

I have completed quite a robust education in the arts and so my own criteria for categorising works are quite different to what they might have been if I had given up following a creative path after completing my GCSEs. Being rooted in the visual arts I tend to think of Art as visual philosophy; I see it as referring to the intellectual rigour with which a work is underpinned, whilst I view Craft as the material processes which were engaged with in the physical creation of a work; whether that be sewing, drawing, painting or otherwise. These may be means-end processes but they are still as important, in my opinion, as the intellectual input that fuels the creation of new work.

Whilst the term ‘Craft’ might be used in the pejorative and the term ‘Art’ might often appear to some to be pretentious there is no reason why the two have to be mutually exclusive.

Do comment below with your view. I’d be interested to hear of others’ opinions on this topic and how you distinguish one creative category from another.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy listening to Grayson Perry musing along similar lines in this video from the V&A.