The distinction between art and craft was not always a thing. Up until about the 16th century, the ‘artist’ hadn’t as yet emerged. Today, it is difficult ‘not’ to consider the difference between art and craft. So how did this difference arise? There is no precise date for it, but I am guessing it happened around the same time the world witnessed the emergence of great masters like Van Gogh and Picasso (different centuries). The more the fine arts gained in popularity, so did the term ‘artist’ and ‘art’.
Before the term artist came about the term ‘artisan’ covered all the folks involved. The earliest definition of an artisan was someone who made things using his hands. By this definition even painters and sculptors were considered artisans. This changed around the age of renaissance in Europe when the grand masters emerged.
Let’s look at a bit of history of the artisans first.
History of the ‘Artisan’ and the Craft Guilds
In the medieval times ranging from about 1250 to 1850, there used to be organizations called craft guilds. I am talking about the time when every art form was considered craft and everyone making it was considered to be an artisan. Each field of craft had its own guild and most often more than just one.
All the people involved with making that particular craft were encouraged to join the guild. They generally had to because the craft guilds wielded a certain amount of power and influence on the trade. Even the suppliers and other traders were often made part of such guilds. As is the case with most organizations, craft guilds also had an inner sanctum of members that profited the most from this arrangement, including a few master craftsman.
The idea behind craft guilds was to exert control over a certain field of craft and profit through that influence via commissions, trade control etc. But craft guilds were finally abolished completely. To begin with, they could never achieve the kind of dictatorial control over a particular field of craft to because there was always other competing guilds.
Also, the state intervened in their policies regarding key aspects including apprenticeship rules etc. which further diminished their power and influence. When this was followed by the industrial revolution and the beginning of mass production of goods, It led to complete dissemination of craft guilds.
The reason why we are getting into a little bit of history concerning art and craft is because when there was a resurgence of craft in the 19th century, also known as the art and craft movement, things worked a little differently.
Emergence of the ‘Artist'
Somewhere in this era the term artist gained popularity and was mostly associated with fine arts.
For example, painters started preferring being referred to as artists, maybe to distinguish themselves from the commonplace connotations of the term, and also to establish the fact that they were making ‘art’. Another reason why the term ‘artist’ caught on because many were doing more than just one thing. If they were painting, they were also sculpting.
To be considered an artist you had and still have to meet a few concepts:
- Create original work.
- Be inspired personally or with external stimuli.
- Convey a message or emotion through the art.
- Create art for art’s sake, meaning most art is not utilitarian. It’s the idea and aesthetics that count.
- Be creative.
Today, the line between art and craft has blurred to some extent. Woodworkers, glass blowers, ceramists are all artists when they produce creative and works of art. There are a few reasons for this as well.
- Handicrafts are becoming rare. They are a novelty as compared to a few centuries ago when everything was handmade. The skill associated with these handicrafts is also becoming rare. As with any commodity that becomes rare, the perceived value of handmade goods has gone up.
- Handmade crafts are beautiful if done skilfully. With the advent of new tools and technology better results can be simulated. Our current environment allows for clever branding, marketing and selling practises.
- People are realising the value of the the skills and the skilled artisans that are becoming less commonplace. Their skill and talent is infinitely more as compared to what are known in the modern-day as ‘conceptual artists’.
- For all the reasons above, the definition of an ‘artist’ has loosened in people’s mind, even though a craft can never be a piece of pure ‘art’. Art doesn’t serve any utilitarian purpose. It is created for conceptual, physiological and aesthetic reasons alone. A craft, by definition, will mostly have a purpose to it.
Clarifying what we wrote about conceptual art above, you really have to read more about conceptual artists and see some examples to understand what I'm talking about. For example, I recently saw a conceptual art where the artist walked back and forth in a straight line in a grassy field till the grass was trampled enough to look like a narrow path in the field. That was the work of art. I don’t quite remember what the message or the sentiment behind the creation was, but you get the point.
Art vs Craft – What makes more money
Let's face it. Artists make more money than artisans. This was true in the 16th century and it rings true today as well. The major difference between then and now is in the degree of freedom in who can call themselves an artist. The difference is also in the acceptance of people in regards to whom they consider artists. Of course, the world has it share of struggling artists as well even today and not all are notably prosperous.
Prejudices, still exist. Art, the kind that sees its place in art galleries gets a very different response and attention as compared to the craft that sell at craft fairs and exhibitions. It also costs a whole lot more.
But to be entirely fair, mediocre art will also not get the artist anywhere and many talented artists have to struggle long and hard before they get the kind of exposure they want. Making art a career choice takes a person of perseverance and conviction about his talent and passion. There are a lot of challenges to overcome. And remember, the artist has to create original, and inspiring work every time if he is to be considered an artist.
Art is independent of medium and tools. It's about the mindset.
In conclusion, being an artist does not depend on what tools the person has in his hands, but rather the mindset. When an artist pushes beyond the mere creation of an object and supplants the physical dimension with creativity and vision, the craft becomes a work of art.
This is perhaps one of the biggest distinguishing factor between art and craft today. For an artisan the end result is the craft itself. For an artist it is the continuance of a thought or ideology. The craft is merely the physical manifestation of that. Most art is not just functional where as most craft is.
Also it should be noted that the term artist is most commonly used for the members of the fine art community like painters and sculptors. It is also commonly used for musicians and to a lesser extent, for actors.