The Difference Between Art and Craft

Radio New Zealand broadcast talk, July 4, 1990

Denis Dutton

How many times have have you heard the question asked — of weaving, pottery, stained glass, or whatever — “is it art or is it craft?”  The question is a virtual cliché for the voice-overs doing introductory material for television programmes dealing with crafts in New Zealand. The trouble is, nobody seems willing to hang around for an answer.  The reason is that, while most of us hold the so-called crafts in esteem, and in fact often enjoy them more than many products of so-called art, we don’t have a clear conception of what distinguishes an art from a craft.  In this discussion, I’d like to take a stab at an answer. 

Craft work is skilled work: any kind of craft must involve the application of a technique. The word, after all, is the German Kraft, simply means power or ability. Craft involves technique, yes, but not necessarily mechanical technology.  For we wouldn’t attribute a high level of craftsmanship to a machine which produced thousands of coffee mugs in an hour. Craft implies the application of human intelligence and usually when we use the word we have in mind the application of the human hand.  The craftsman has tools at command, but to the extent that the tools themselves, independent of human guidance, accomplish a task, we don’t talk about craftsmanship.

A second point. The concept of craft is historically associated with the production of useful objects and art — well, at least since the 18th century — with useless ones.  The craftsman’s teapot or vase should normally be able to hold tea or flowers, while the artist’s work is typically without utilitarian function.  In fact, if an object is made demonstrably useless — if, to cite a famous example, you take a teacup and line it entirely with animal fur — it has to be considered as a work of art, because there is nothing else left to consider it as. The crafts tend to produce things which are useful for various human purposes, and though they may be pretty or pleasing in any number of ways, craft objects tend to exhibit their prettiness around a purpose external to the object itself.  To this extent, the crafts aren’t arts, according to a idea which found fullest expression in the aesthetics of the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Works of art, Kant said, are “intrinsically final”: they appeal purely at the level of the imagination and aren’t good for any practical utility, except — and I’ll return to this — except the cultivation of the human spirit.

These two symptoms of craft, that craft involves the application of intelligent skill (often some kind of handwork), and that it commonly results in the production of useful objects, are uncontroversial, but they still don’t get us very far in distinguishing craft from art.  Because, of course, works of art — in painting, in music and its performance, in poetry, and elsewhere — normally require skill, and, moreover, many great works of art are also objects of enormous practical value, for example, works of architecture.

I think we can get closer to the heart of the matter by looking at the remarks made on this subject in the 1930s by the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood. Collingwood listed a set of of criteria which distinguish art from craft. The most important, or at least interesting, of these is that with craft, and not with art, there is “a distinction between planning and execution” such that the “result to be obtained is preconceived or thought out before being arrived at.  The craftsman Collingwood says, knows what he wants to make before he makes it.”  This foreknowledge, Collingwood says, must not be vague, but must be precise.  He calls it “indispensable” to craft.

Collingwood gives the example of a typical craftsman — a furniture maker. “If a person sets out to make a table,” he writes, “but conceives the table only vaguely, as somewhere between two by four feet and three by six, and between two and three feet high, and so forth, he is no craftsman,” Collingwood says. Think about it.  If I call a tradesman in to install a bay window, which — which my wife and I did last year — it is I, no craftsman, who has only a vague notion of what it will look like.  But the craftsman I’ve hired knows exactly what to do to achieve a result which he sees perfectly clearly well before he starts.  Similarly with something as arcane as the craft of my mechanic, who deals with the subtle mysteries of my old Holden station wagon. The mechanic possesses a set of skills and techniques (not to mention tools) which he applies to a task — say he’s going to tune the engine. Exactly what he’ll have to do before he’s finished is uncertain — a few informed guesses, a bit a trial and error.  But he knows the outcome he seeks.  That is to say, he knows exactly what a well-tuned Holden straight six should sound like with the timing and carburetor correctly adjusted.  He may not know exactly how to get where he’s going, so to speak, but he knows exactly what it will be like when he’s arrived.  He knows, in that sense, when to stop.

There is a dependability about craft, the dependability which comes from the application of a learned technique.  As a craftsperson, any potter who earns a living making functional domestic ware must be able to know — or have a pretty good idea — of what the final product will look like when it emerges from the kiln.  In this respect, craft is essentially different from art; art and craft, though overlapping and in practice intimately involved with each other, are in Collingwood’s view at opposite ends of a continuum.  On the one hand, there is the crafty application of a predictable, learned (and, incidentally, teachable) skill capable of producing a preconceived result, and on the other end — on the other end, well, what?

For Collingwood, the answer was that art, among other things, expresses emotion. And he gave a very astute account of what he meant by expressing emotion, which for him was not merely putting on some emotional display.  It was rather a matter for the artist of probing the content of our emotional lives but exploring the emotional possibilities of the work itself.  It was a matter of articulating, of making clear an emotion, or more generally a feeling.  His example is that of an actress.  An actress may set herself the task of arousing a certain emotional response in an audience and, knowing exactly what she’s about, she may succeed in doing so.  In this respect, acting is an honourable and skillful craft, requiring great technical skill.  On the other hand, an actress, faced perhaps with a complex and ambiguous part to play, may in acting plumb the emotional and intellectual possibilities of the part, may set out to make the emotional content of the role clear to her audience, but — and this is the point — at the same time she’s making it clear to herself. In this respect, not only for acting, but for all of the arts, craftsmen and artists stand in different relations to their audiences.  The craftsman knows beforehand the end to be achieved, or the effect to be produced upon his audience.  The artist, on the other hand, stands in the same relationship to the outcome as his audience. The artist explores the unknown limits and possibilities of his art, the artist is also finding out, clarifying, understanding.  

The archetypical craftsman might be the conjurer, the stage magician, who amazes an audience. He stands in a completely difference relationship to his craft from his audience: he knows the tricks of his trade, he knows exactly what to do, and exactly what the effect will be. The archetypical artist might be, say, the Beethoven of the last quartets: an artist who is at the outer boundaries of what music could produce, at the very limits of what was possible for him.  In those works Beethoven too — Beethoven as much as you or I — is discovering where music can go in the 1820s, is discovering what he can do with it. The conjurer stands behind a wall manipulating his audience’s emotions and beliefs; the artist is as much any member of his or her own audience as anyone else.  This may be part of what is meant when it is said — often in a defensive tone — that the true artist produces as much for himself or herself as for an audience.  If the creation of the work of art is as much an exploration and a struggle and a discovery for the artist as for the audience, then the artist becomes in a sense a member of the audience too.

One more example of a craft, before I move on.  I was born in North Hollywood and grew up, though not in a film industry family, certainly surrounded by movie making.  It strikes me that in very many respects, large-scale film making is paradigmatically craft, as Collingwood means it.  It requires the work of countless numbers of highly trained, intelligent, skillful people in all aspects of scripting, casting, lighting, directing, cinematography, special effects, acting, and promotion.  But there is no sense that these activities are carried out for the sake of themselves, and little sense that they are for the sake of the people who produce films.  The whole key to life in Hollywood is, what will sell?  What will have them lining up in Atlanta, or Auckland.  There are the Citizen Kane sort of exceptions — film which really do stand as works of cinematic art — but Hollywood does not usually bother to explore the formal, the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional possibilities of film as an artistic medium, except where this can be demonstrated to increase box office receipts.  Movies are produced not for we the producers, but for them, for the folks, young and old, who drink Pepsi or eat mild or tasty cheese.  (Hmmm. . . cheese making — there’s another craft I might have discussed. )  That is why, perfectly in line with Collingwood’s distinction, we can speak of the craft of Hollywood, or the magic of Hollywood, but we feel uncomfortable with the phrase the art of Hollywood: that’s over the top even for that most self-congratulatory of industries. It’s purely a show put on by some people who make movies, for other people who buy tickets or rent videos.

But by now it should be obvious that the strict demarcation between art and craft as I’ve begun to explain it exists only in the philosopher’s imagination.  In the first place, almost all traditionally acknowledged art involves, indeed, requires craft, requires the application of technique.  At least it has historically, and the training for practitioners in all of the arts has involved the mastery of techniques (though this differs among the arts: training as a musician requires a more rigourous and structured course of technical preparation than training as a novelist — writing good novels isn’t any easier than playing the piano well, but the training for it is less routinised).  Thus for the last 2500 years it might be said at least that craft of some sort has been considered a necessary condition for artistic practice — a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition.  And in this respect, one way to understand the appearance of Found Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art on the modern scene. All of these movements are in part attacks on the very place of craft in art — attempts to produce art without craft.  (For that very reason, among others, I believe these school of art do not have a vital future ahead of them. )

Moreover, there is every imaginable overlap between the limiting cases of art and craft as I’ve described them, between my crafty mechanic tuning my Holden and the artsy Beethoven feeling his way, so to speak, through the Opus 130 quartet. There are elements of art in the most ordinarily humble of crafts.  The love of materials, the original leaps of imagination, the ability not only to delight to to jar and audience, and reveal new possibilities in a craft medium — these are features of the artistic act and they characterise all crafts at their most engaging. .

And there are symptoms of craft, not merely as required technique, but more negatively as mere proficient routine, as manipulation of an audience, and as the satisfaction of external demands, in much art, so-called. In fact, I sometimes think in this respect there is as much crafty art about as arty craft.  I recall a show of what had been described to me as “vital, fresh contemporary New Zealand painting” which doubtless had much to recommend it, but which struck me has tailored, Hollywood fashion, not to the box office in Peoria, but to the current corporate art market.  It was slick, it was hmmm. . . interesting, but it was produced for the audience, not for the artists.  And so it is that much contemporary art — again, art so-called — really more fulfills Collingwood’s criteria for craft, as something that will function to sell in a market, as work conditioned and adapted to the needs, or anyway desires, of a market.  There is nothing wrong with producing for a market, or according to external social needs.  After all, most of the great art of European history has been produced to fulfill religious requirements, or the demands of royalty.  The question is, whether this is all it is, or whether it is also, in Collingwood’s terms, an expressive exploration of the formal and emotional possibilities of an artistic medium. Let’s face it, a lot of contemporary so-called art isn’t art at all: it’s slick, clever craftwork — analogous to, and about as heart-felt as, the work of a good stage magician (though usually not, alas, as entertaining).

On the other hand, there might be craftspeople, so-called, who, using fibre, clay, and other apparently “disreputable” materials, are in fact doing what Collingwood calls art. One reason his theory of art and craft is so attractive is that it makes the question of what distinguishes art from craft completely independent of the materials an artists uses, the genre in which the work is produced, and the sex or social status of the artist.  Take something as apparently beyond the pale of art as china painting.  Yes, even ladies in Peoria who paint flowers on china might, according to this standard, better fulfill the criteria for “artist” than some high-flying Manhattan painter. It’s theoretically possible, anyway, and it doesn’t depend on an a priori categorisation of china painting as a form of expression, which in principle ought to be as replete with possibilities for emotional expression as many other recognised art forms, such as Greek pottery painting. Admittedly, most china painting is not very imaginative: it’s routine, predictable, and stereotyped. But maybe that just means that china painting is an art form waiting for its Giotto, its Palestrina, its Chaucer, or, well, its Jane Austen. 

Here’s the next to the last question: what’s better, craft or art?  The answer, naturally, depends on what you want.  I for one admit that art interests me a lot, but art only rarely delivers the sublime experiences the aesthete seeks.   All the more reason to admire the accomplished craftsperson, someone with a demonstrable skill who can produce something useful and pleasing, than an artist whose muddy visions are no help to anybody, either for human understanding or decorative enjoyment.  As Kant said, at its best, art cultivates and expands the human spirit.  But it doesn’t do that often, because most artists aren’t up to it.  The dependable, polished craftsperson can deliver.

But beyond this, it’s clear that many of the so-called crafts can be termed “art” without excuse or apology.  Take pottery, for example.  If the British potter Bernard Leach wasn’t an artist, if his works didn’t fulfill the general criteria of exploring the formal and expressive properties and possibilities of the medium, and pleasing at the level of the imagination, then I don’t know who or what could.  Of his own work, the New Zealand potter Len Castle has written, “I make pots. . .to understand the nature of form. . .and for the elation that goes with discovering the unknown.” That notion of “exploring the unknown” precisely disqualifies Castle’s work from the category of craft.  Castle has also said that “My unsatisfactory pots often suffer from ‘art anxiety’!”  It is clear that the work of many potters is virtually indistinguishable in aesthetic content from conventional sculpture, and is capable of commentary on life just as sculpture is — for example, Peter Lange’s sculptural wisecracks and pottery shots.

It is not, then, the medium or even the person that makes art art and craft craft.  It is rather the character of the making involved.  As all arts in some way involve techniques that can be taught and learned, that are to some extent governed by rules and routine, and that produce a preconceived result, all arts involve craft.  And most crafts beyond plumbing and auto repair can be expressive, can explore the novel and undiscovered possibilities of a medium — and hence can be in that respect arts.   But there is no mechanical way to discover in an artistic performance the elements of art and of craft.  In making these distinctions we are delivered into a grey and nebulous area which called for aesthetic judgement.  Craft is, in fact, one of the borderlands of art. 


Borderlands of Art was a series of three radio talks on topics in aesthetics presented by Denis Dutton and produced by Elizabeth Alley for Radio New Zealand. The other topics were kitsch and forgery. The talks were broadcast on Concert FM on July 4, 11, and 18, 1990 and repeated in April 1991.