Craft and Art

The distinction between how we use the words “craft” and “art” has been on my mind for a while, recently.  As a matter of fact, it has been a topic that has occupied my attention on and off for a number of years.

As you might guess, there are a lot of essays, videos, blog posts, podcasts, rants, and comments on the Web that address the topic, and if you poke around in a library or bookstore, you can find dead-tree equivalents.

If you spend some time with all this material, you begin to catch a number of themes.  I think they are all missing the point.

Let me summarize the various attitudes about art and craft, then I will explain why I am the only person who has penetrated the mystery.

  1. Art is about itself, and craft is just decorated useful items
    1. You can find this attitude all over the place:
      1. Denis Dutton proposes that “These two symptoms of craft, that craft involves the application of intelligent skill (often some kind of handwork), and that it commonly results in the production of useful objects, are uncontroversial
      2. Craft is functional, yes.  And it can be exceptionally well-rendered, but ultimately it lacks the importance, the impact, and/or the emotional currency of art.
      3. The concept of craft is historically associated with the production of useful objects and art well, at least since the 18th century with useless ones.
    2. Emmanuel Kant heavily influenced this attitude with his ideas that art produces “disinterested pleasure,” meaning that the observer has pleasure in the work of art, but has no use for it.
    3. There are a number of issues with the consistency of this approach.
      1. If an object has utility for observer A, and no utility for observer B, could it be art for B and not for A?
      2. What about objects from cultures who never found this distinction necessary or useful?  Is a Ming vase or Classical Greek red figure pottery art?  If not, why is it displayed in art museums?
    4. R.G. Collingwood seems to be viewed as “the last word” on this topic.
      1. The second paragraph of section 1.1 of this document seems to suggest strongly that Collingwood never learned to make anything with his own hands.
  2. The definition of Art is based in racism, sexism, and cultural bias
    1. This is another attitude that is easy to find on the Web
      1. How about a book called Media and Ethnic Values?  “Elitism and ethnocentrism are embedded in art history and criticism.
      2. The basic argument is that the only things considered “great art” are paintings, stone sculpture, and architecture from Dead White European Males.
      3. The problem with this argument is that current work seems to be dominated by artists who do not fit in the narrow range of this argument.
    2. Laura Morelli argues for a historical viewpoint that the difference between art and craft is largely a matter of historical accident and ground-floor marketing, and that European culture first began to make the distinction in the 15th Century, while most other cultures never saw those distinctions as significant.
  3. The Tate Museum (one of the UK’s heaviest hitters in the art world) has this to say in an article about art and craft:  “It’s not a new question, the boundaries between craft and art have long been contested.”  The comments on this article contain a sampling of most of these prevalent attitudes.
  4. Sometimes, we find expressed the idea that craft is just an attempt at art that did not make the final inexpressible leap to Artiness:
    1. “the main difference is the concept behind an idea, how deep is the idea presented. By deep I am talking about the level of thought and the research behind”
    2. “trying to define something as either one thing or another, when in fact, the two are on a spectrum”

Okay, that should cover the current state of the Art/Craft debate.  I dug through all that for a long time, far past the time when it remained interesting.  You are welcome to look for something new or different there.

So, what is my brilliant solution to this question?

The difference between Art and Craft is that “art” derives from Latin through French, and “craft” derives from Germanic languages.

“Really?” I can imagine you asking, “That’s all you have to say about it?”

Well, no, of course not.  But that is the essence of it.

When we look at American and British culture, and to some degree the other British-influenced cultures, we see a bias associating French-derived words, practices, and artifacts with higher social class.  Anglo-Saxon (that is, Germanic) culture is associated with lower social classes.  This goes back to the Norman French nobles of a millenium ago, ruling over the Anglo-Saxon peasants.  If you want to know how those groups felt about each other, read some Robin Hood stories.

So, when something is labeled “craft”, it is automatically placed on a lower rung of the social ladder than “art.”

But, tracing the root meanings of the two words into their mother languages will yield nearly identical meanings, each of which boils down to something like “skill or ability to make or do something.”

To put it another way, the high-end art scene is just like the cliques and tribes of high school.  They get away with telling the rest of the world that they are a better class only because they use the language of conquerors, and we believe them, at least a little.

So, the next time someone asks, “But is it art?” be sure to tell them, that of course it is.  It is also craft.

Because they are the same.