Is it Art? Is it Craft?
Copyright © Charles Lewton-Brain 2004
Published in: MAGazine
A publication of the Metal Arts Guild of Canada, Winter 2005
The Art versus Craft issue is a complex question and one that has bedeviled creators a
great deal in the last fifty years or so.
I once heard a gallery owner say that the difference between an art object and a craft
object is $3000. The American Craft Council's director Carmine Branagan says that the
discussion is unimportant, that the craft/art debate is one of craftspeople talking to
themselves, about issues that do not matter at all to the general public - they do not care
about this particular debate. She holds that if we are educating the culture as makers then
the real issue is getting the work and what it means out and before the public, especially
through galleries, museums and publications, the validators in society.
I personally see art and craft as a very similar activity, that both involve creating,
problem solving, composition and design decisions, pattern recognition, intuition, etc. I
consider things a spectrum of kinds of work, no boundaries or strict edges to things, more
of a blur. It has to do with intent perhaps, what is the intent of the object. That and the
form of the object, the choice to work in a form or within the restrictions of a form.
Examples of forms include a ring, a teapot, a wall mounted painting, a chair. By choosing
an object type (or aesthetic or media restrictions) one defines the skeleton against which
one makes art. Some of these contexts and restrictions are cultural as well as functional,
and here is where we may wander into objects that can clearly be called craft ones.
The Canadian Professional Relations tribunal, after spending months on the question
decided that 'artists self-designate', that for legal purposes you are an artist if you say you
are or a craftsperson if you say you are. I am both, and some of my objects are both at
one time. I see it as a long spectrum where the maker defines what object type it is or
what mode (art/craft) one works in. The issue for me comes in hierarchy, in situations
where people are told, or taught that one thing is better than another (usually art more
'fine', 'high', 'valued') than craft. And that, I think is where the rub lies, with some people
discriminating against practitioners and objects made in a craft context, and as a someone
who willingly chooses that context now and then, it feels bad. The issue of Design is a
large one, and while I think both art and craft objects are designed, to work in the mode
of design is to work in a mode that emphasizes service, function and the user. In the
design world though changes have occurred so that a single object in a 'craft' media can
be shown in a catalog or magazine as a designed object, and the maker has, more or less,
made it in service to their own (artistic) needs rather than to an external problem.
Art and craft are differentiated by customs and border control laws by practical function.
If you can wear it or put peanuts into it is craft. Or if there are more than 49 of them -
prints, both photographic and other done in editions magically turn from fine art into
product if there are 50 or more of them.
Once upon a time (pre-NAFTA) craft work going to the US had a 50% duty on it which
made it just about impossible to think of selling in the states. Fine art however traveled
duty free. You could however, prove you were an artist to the United States government,
which I went through in the hope of being able to circumvent the duty if I was recognized
as a fine artist. This process was complex and circuitous. And you can only apply once in
your life. If they decide you are not an artist you can NEVER apply again. That's it. A
one time decision.
It is administered by the US department of Justice, and one had to submit all the proofs
you could find, posters you were called an artist on, published 'artist's statements' that
used the work artist, and so on. In fact I have made a point of ensuring that the word
'artist' appears in connection with my name in print since this experience. You then
documented a piece of work at all stages, photographs of all the stages in its development
and described and listed all the decision points there were. In my case there were some 28
distinct aesthetic decisions made while making the sample piece. You proved that there
were numerous aesthetic decision points in the work, (not just technical ones). This, with
every other proof you could think of was installed in a large binder. Then you submitted
the whole pile to the Department of Justice. Some time later they get back to you.
They said I was an Artist. Definitely. For sure. But it didn't make any difference, I still
had to pay the duty on my work because it was still functional, you could still wear it or
use it for things other than just looking at.
So, for me it’s a spectrum, and intent, the object, the mode and I determine what it is,
how much art content it may have. Most of the time elements of both, sometimes tilted
more one way than another.
The only problem with the debate is unfair hierarchy which seems to exist in the arts field
and in the culture and the results of discrimination based on such hierarchy, its effects on
fees paid to teachers, salary expectations, grants, university budgets for craft areas and so