Sadly, there still exists in the UK, a huge amount of snobbery around being an artist versus crafter or craftsperson.
It is a snobbery I have never understood and, having lived in the mid-west of the United States, I can say it is a snobbery which doesn’t exist over there. It is also a snobbery I personally refuse to engage in. However, as it does exist, I wanted to take some time here to explain a bit more about it, the differences between the two terms and how this distinction came about. It is my firm belief that it is only through education that any kind of prejudice can be removed! And that applies to everything.
I am not entirely sure when this divide arose but from the research I have done the terms appear to have become separated in peoples’ minds when the Arts and Crafts movement, which emerged in the mid-19th century, tried to bring the skills together due to the perceived deterioration in design and decoration which followed the advent of machinery and factory production of work that was previously hand made. But please don’t quote me on that.
Firstly, is there a difference and, if so, what is it? My basic understanding is that a craftsperson makes the same thing over and over again to reach, or maintain, a constant state of perfection whereas an artist constantly invents and reinvents their ideas to produce a different but more considered result.
Let’s take people who work with clay. A person who calls themselves a potter probably spends hour upon hour at the wheel producing pots, plates, mugs etc. to the same exacting standards. A series of mugs would be measured as they are being made in the hope that once fired, they all look very similar or even the same. A ceramicist may or may not use a wheel, but they tend to build things with clay, making structures, jewellery, animals for example but with each item being different which is more creative and therefore considered artistic.
This then begs the question is art a talent or a skill? To be considered an artist – and this applies to drawing, painting, sculpting, designing, performing, composition etc. – one needs creative ability. This ability and the skills that are used, with our imagination thrown in, to produce the work is what makes someone an artist rather than a craftsperson. The more creativity exercised by a person in the production of their work, the more they earn the title artist.
But this in no way should ever make someone believe that because they are an artist, they are somehow “higher up the tree” than a craftsperson. If you have ever watched – and if you haven’t you really should – The Repair Shop on BBC One or UK TV – the craftsmen and women on there are incredibly talented and highly skilled. However, I would not want Steve the clock restorer or his sister Suzi, a master saddler, to be creative with their skills when making, mending or repairing clocks or leather goods.
Let’s change the question around and ask is a skill also an art or artform? Absolutely, yes. The more skills you acquire the more skilful you become and that applies to both craftspeople and artists. At the end of the day it’s about education. The more educated you are in your field the more skilful you become.
So, the really difficult question is which is more important, skill or talent? I expect I am going to upset a few people here but basically skills are far more important than talent over 90% of the time. A person needs to learn their trade to be able to excel, and it take time to acquire skills.
I wrote a blog a few months ago about art in education so I am going to be brief here, so as not to repeat myself, but the importance of art and crafts education needs, in my mind, to be addressed. Children learn so much more through arts and crafts, and design education, than how to draw, paint and make. Through arts education they learn skills required in the adult world such as collaboration, which leads to investigation, self-expression and co-operation as well as creative skills, ‘thinking outside the box’ and self-control.
Through the design element of arts education, they learn valuable skills in working intelligently and being self-critical. These are essential life skills which we really cannot afford to lose in our young people.
I have heard it said that anyone can learn a craft but not everyone can be an artist. Not true. I guarantee I could teach anyone to draw or paint. But it is just about learning the skills to become a good artist. I can’t guarantee that I can teach anyone to be a good or great artist. That element, I do believe, has to come from within, but I suspect the same is true of a craftsman, too. If your family insisted that you become a cabinet maker but you absolutely hate handling wood, you are not going to love what you do and are therefore likely to produce work which reflects that. The same is true of being an artist. You have got to want to do something to become good at it.
Historically, back in the days of artists such as Michelangelo and da Vinci if you wanted to be an artist you started as an apprentice to a master artist. I suppose that is a bit like going to art classes these days. Through the apprenticeship and by watching closely what the master did, you would learn sufficient skills to be able to move on, become a master yourself and take on apprentices with whom you would share your skills and so on and so on.
Also, traditionally something denoted as craft had a function as well as needing to be well-designed. It had purpose. Art, on the other hand, does not have such a definable purpose. It may very well make a statement, political or otherwise, and it is often used this way nowadays.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that an artist uses their craft skills to express their thoughts, feelings and messages through their art whereas craftspeople rely on their skills to produce a functional and well-designed product.
In my mind, both have equal standing and should be treated with the same reverence. But that is my opinion. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.