The debate about the crossover of art and craft feels like it's having a resurgence at the moment.

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The V&A and the Crafts Council have a joint exhibition celebrating contemporary craft, The Power of Making; artist Grayson Perry has just curated a show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman; and Tacita Dean’s FILM for this year’s Unilever Series engages directly with the tactile skills and crafts of making moving images through film.

Tacita Dean FILM 2011
Tacita Dean's FILM 2011 installed at Tate Modern.

It’s not a new question, the boundaries between craft and art have long been contested. But with the explosion of interest in craft, from the Make Do and Mend craze, the new cool of the Women’s Institute and graffiti knitting to artists’ (such as Ai Weiwei) connection with traditional skills and Richard Sennet’s collection of essays The Craftsman gaining interest and coverage, it seems to be the time to talk about it.

So what defines an artist or a craft maker, or even divides an artist from a craft maker?

Perhaps intention makes the distinction. If a maker intends to express something perhaps that makes it art.

However, I asked a few makers at a contemporary craft fair last week, and they often felt that it was the material they worked with that made it craft - textiles, ceramics, glass seem to fall into the craft category, never mind if their intention as maker might be an artistic one.

Perhaps it’s how a maker learnt their skill. As an apprentice coming through a process of learning a skill, hand to hand, as it were? That’s craft. As a fully formed genius honing an expressive talent? That’s art.

Perhaps it’s use. Something wearable or useable - jewellery or furniture for example - seems to fit neatly under the craft label, while something that has no clear practical purpose might be called art. However, this doesn’t take into account the decorative crafts, nor the artists who produce practical items.

So what do you think? When is a maker an artist? And what makes a craft an art?


I will assume that this question is not a wind-up. "When is a craft an art"? When is Art not a craft? When it becomes an empty, celebrity driven excuse for a job. Make something beautiful with your hands, mind and heart. Shame on you.

I see craft as being the process of applying sill to make an object. A skilled craftsperson can make art using their crafts skills, or they can make decorations, or functional objects that aren't really art as they aren't saying anything.

And art is craft when the person making the art is employing skill that they have developed over a long period of time to create their piece, that they couldn't have made without having developed that skill through practice.

There is also the craft movement, which is a different thing. Craft in that context is just any skillfully made, beautiful objects that don't fit into the rigid definition of art that we used to have, where it was only art if it was painting or sculpture. Most craftspeople I know identify as makers rather than artists, despite their work being high concept, because their work fits into the "craft movement" definition. To them, they are makers simply because their art is made of glass or ceramic or wood, despite having the same conceptual traits that would qualify it as being considered art.

That's my take anyway! We debated this a lot on my Contemporary Crafts degree. I was probably the only person in the class who identified as an artist rather than a designer-maker.

Ben, thanks for the feedback - much appreciated. IMO, the Art in Art has become profoundly diluted over the years largely because of the greed and survival instincts of both academia and art institutions to fill spaces with paying customers. We used to have the debate about key concepts like "anything CAN BE Art but it does not follow that everything IS THEREFORE Art". These days its "Whatever pays the bills or furthers a career IS Art. Period. Show me the money." I prefer your discourse. The criminal assault and battery of the professional interest we share is cultural bloodsport that will not subside of anything we say but the dialog IS very important for artists to understand and engage in. Art is never a debate about what the thing is made of, who made it, what they choose to call themselves, and so on. Its very much about intent and the success of that intent in giving soul to the object - let's sidestep historical and religious exceptionalism. I moderate the Contemporary Art forum on LinkedIn and welcome you to copy your comments over there. There's an occasionally rambunctious group of artists there who love this stuff. Everyone is welcome. In the meantime, keep on keeping on.