The artist versus the artisan – which one are you

Let's face it. Artists make more money than artisans. This was true in the 16th century and it is a little true today as well. The major difference 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 as artists.

The earliest definition of an artisan was someone who made things using his hands. By that definition even painters and sculptors were considered as artisans. This changed around the age of renaissance in Europe when the grand masters emerged.

Ceramist artisan

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.

Artisan glassblower

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. 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’.

Artist career

In the modern times the distinguishing margin between art and craft has blurred to the extent of being rendered meaningless. Woodworkers, glass blowers, ceramists are all artists when they produce creative and works of work. Their skill and talent is infinitely more as compared to what are known in the modern-day as ‘conceptual artists’. 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.

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.

Painter artist

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.

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.

Musician artist

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