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What Is the Difference Between an Artist and a Craft Person?

by Valerie Bolden-Barrett
David Revere McFadden, chief curator and vice president of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, sees no significant differences between artists and craft people.

David Revere McFadden, chief curator and vice president of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, sees no significant differences between artists and craft people.

The term "arts and crafts" seems to make a distinction between people who make art and people who make crafts. But the distinction isn't always so clear. Whether creative people make art or crafts depends on whom you ask. And sometimes it depends on how creative people perceive themselves and each other.

Dictionary Definition

The Webster Online Dictionary defines "art" as products of "human creativity." The dictionary also describes art as aesthetic creations of significance. Webster defines "craft" as an "art" or "skill" associated with an occupation or trade. This definition has roots in the Middle Ages, when masons, carpenters, apothecaries, candle makers and other artisans formed trade-based guilds to secure work. The dictionary also defines "craft" as a "superior skill" that can be learned through "study and practice and observation." But painters and sculptors, who typically aren't considered craft people, learn their art the same way. And since the guilds also included painters, the dictionary definitions make the difference between artists and craft people seem less distinct.

Aesthetics vs. Function

In some creative circles, art is perceived as having only visual significance, while craft is thought to have function and therefore more value. Garth Clark, an award-winning art dealer, historian and writer, expressed a similar viewpoint in the September 17, 2012, issue of "American Craft Magazine." In the article titled, "Is the Future of Craft in Design?" he called fine art an "artificial market" that lacks intrinsic value but is "kept alive" by an artificial air of privilege, glamour and genius. He also said most craft people aren't fine artists, although a few, such as jewelry makers, have made the crossover.

"Snob" Factor

Woodworkers, glassblowers, jewelry makers and ceramists sometimes classify themselves as artists. Others in the traditional craft or functional category have adopted the more inclusive tag, "artisan." Still, creative people often call themselves artists because they think of crafts as inferior to the work they produce. In a blog post on CreateMixedMedia.com titled, "Craft Isn't a Dirty Word," Rice Freeman-Zachery, author of "Destination Creativity," wrote no two people are likely to agree on how artists and craft people differ. She added while many people prefer to call themselves artists, many others lack the training and skill required to master their medium, despite the category they choose.

Cultural Significance

Some authorities on creativity believe the differences between artists and craft people are more cultural than technical. According to Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., the meaning of "craft" has changed fundamentally three times in the last 200 years. He attributes the changes in definition to global cultural differences. However, he agrees with the theory which says craft has nothing to do with aesthetics and should have less to do with technology. David Revere McFadden, chief curator and vice president of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, believes art, craft and design all share the essential elements of creativity; materials for making tangible things and process -- the act of creating. He believes it's time to stop defining artists and craft people separately and start appreciating what they share creatively.

About the Author

Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.

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