THE AGE-OLD (war) STORY: Art vs. Craft

Luann Udell shares how society defines art vs craft have changed through the years.
Luann Udell shares how society defines art vs craft have changed through the years.

THE AGE-OLD (war) STORY: Art vs. Craft

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Times have changed. Have we?

(7 minute read)

If you want to start a flame war/troll fest on the internet, just ask the difference between art and craft. (PLEASE don’t do it here, though.) This is a collection of thoughts about why that line is so hard to define.

A reader recently sent me a story. On the urging of their collectors, they approached a local art organization in their area to see if it would be interested in displaying their work.

But the person who viewed their work said it was craft, not art. They implied the work would probably not be accepted for the more-prestigious art-and-sculpture section of the gallery.

Before we go into strategies about how to move forward with this, let me share my own experiences.

When I first took up my creative work, I thought for sure I knew the difference between art and craft. Pottery was obviously a craft, for example, while oil painting was true art.

Until a potter friend of mine, who made each pot they made by hand (not even a wheel), one at a time, fired in pit rather than a kiln, and each one was distinctive, shared this little insight with me:

If they make a beautiful clay piece, it’s craft.

If they take that same piece and have it cast in bronze, it’s art.

So that next step which is a commercial, industrial process outside the parameter of almost any artist, determines that category. (I am not saying it’s a simple process, or doesn’t involve creativity in its own right. I’m saying casting is beyond the purview of many folks such as silversmiths, or those who work with metal in any form. And for those who do, it’s a case where….um….size does matter. Casting a ring is vastly different from casting a large bronze sculpture.)

Another definition often depends on whether the product performs a function (say, bowls which hold food) or is strictly decorative (art!)

So what would you call a clay sculpture? Can’t be used to serve food, unless you can balance a dish on it. So can we really say that everything made with clay is craft?

A third definition is whether the work is one-of-a-kind, or done in a series. Prints are done in series, for example, while most 2-D work is a one-off. (A series might contain the same subject, or a related theme, but each one is different.)

I submitted prints made with my own hand-carved stamps to the print-making jury at a prestigious fine craft organization. I brought samples of different series I’d made.

But after I described my process, I was deferred. Because I used multiple stamps to create the piece. Three. Because I wasn’t carving “one plate”, and so capable of making multiples, it was determined my work was art, not craft. It was technically a “monoprint”, which is not “craft”. (A pretty nice rejection, but still.)

And yet many of the printmakers in this organization create multiple plates for multiple colors, one for each. One could argue that, if each color used in the series (which could be made in several print runs on different dates) were not exactly the same, would those not be monoprints, too? (I started to look up prints vs. monoprints, and monoprints vs. monotypes, but I got lost in the rabbit hole….) So the intent is craft, but the reality is, you can often tell the prints are dissimilar.

How about digital art? When digital art first appeared in the creative world, almost everyone (including me) did not consider it “real art”. It was made with the aid of a computer, which could, supposedly, be recreated easily by anyone else. Therefore, it was more like calling a coloring book “art”. Nope.

Until I talked with one of these early adaptor artists about their work. Turns out there was a huge amount of uncertainty, and serendipity, random factors involved but not controlled, even in this art medium. They would try for a certain effect, which could result in something unpredictably amazing, and difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce exactly.

And of course, computers are now used for many commercial, and artistic purposes. I’ve met a lot of graphic designers along the way, and despite the common knowledge and tools needed to do their work, each one has their own unique and distinctive style.

Sorta starting to look like art, doesn’t it?

Fiber arts is a whole nother ballgame, too. Yes, anyone can knit a sweater pattern, or make a quilt using templates. But then we come across this designer (following her own original sweater patterns) and find this.

Art? Fine craft?? If my artifacts are in jewelry, probably fine craft. In a fiber collage? Anybody’s guess! Small sculpture? Maybe art. Oh, wait. It’s not cast in bronze!

If we consider that these fiber media have been labeled “women’s art” for years, not measuring up to “real art”, what can we say about “urinal art”? The only component showing a contribution by the actual artist is the signature. And it’s in a museum. In fact, the first sentence of this article is, “Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and is widely seen as an icon of twentieth-century art…..” It’s an unmodified urinal with a fake name on it.

My point here is not to define these two categories, and I refuse to argue about what is art and what isn’t. I am simply pointing out that the lines are wavering, the boundaries are fuzzy, and it’s simplistic to define “art” strictly by the gender of the artist, the medium they choose, nor even the subject matter. (Mary Cassatt’s work was dismissed as “domestic art” for years, because she painted actual mothers and their children. Now if only she’d painted Mary-and-baby Jesus…..)

Back to my friend’s setback. I went to the organization’s website. Yep, they’ve acknowledged that they accept fiber art. Good for them! I checked out the work my friend submitted, and compared it to the gallery images shown. Their work was comparable/compatible to several paintings in their collection: Color palette, check. Subject matter, check. Quality of design and composition, check. There was a colorful hand-dyed, handmade dress featured. So, functional work. Art? Craft? It’s in the art section. (My friend’s is purely decorative, not functional.)

In this case, I believe the person working that day simply had their own ideas about what is art, and what is craft. The actual work is supposed to be submitted and judged by a jury. (In some galleries, yeah, that could be one juror, usually, the owner. But an art organization? Usually a committee.)

I suggested they fill out the submission forms, following the rules and guidelines exactly. Then wait to see what happens.

If they are accepted, yippee!

If not, they can inquire about the reasons for the rejection, respectfully, to find out how they can “improve” their work to meet the standards. (It’s important to keep your cool here! Being angry or difficult will just strengthen their resolve to keep you out.)

I applied to three different media jury processes with that fine craft organization. If work was rejected or deferred, it was part of the jurying process to advise the artist exactly what they had to do to meet the standards.*

If the reasons are, as above, vague, inappropriate, or seem personal, then it’s time to request a presentation to the board of directors. Not as a fist fight, but to politely, calmly share some of the thoughts in this article. Where…and why…are they drawing that line? (Especially when it’s obvious this artist’s work is just as good, and unique, as their own current gallery artists.)

In a professional manner, they can cite the org’s mission statement, and inquire (again, calmly and politely, out of real curiosity) how they decided this artist’s work does not meet those standards.

If that doesn’t work, at least it will be clear that their actions do not really support their mission statement. And I hope there are other galleries and venues where this person can apply to with their work.

I hope when their passionate collectors take their business to that other venue, it might encourage that org to reconsider.

Again, please, no definitions, no troll wars or flaming swords. As I said, we are all entitled to our own opinions.

Just consider the many, many ways creativity can manifest itself in our modern world. You are entitled to your own opinions, and I truly respect that.

My intention was to share how I’ve changed my own opinionabout this. To suggest how to influence the attitude that the lines between art and craft are written in stone, and will never change.

And consider how many times the creative, innovative, beautiful, powerful work, the work of the heart by others, has been relegated to a back seat on the bus, instead given the chance to stand in the sun, too.

If you know someone who needs to read this, someone whose beautiful work has been rejected for shaky reasons, send this on to them.

And if you’d like to read more articles like this, sign up at Fine Art Views, or subscribe to my blog at https://luannudell.wordpress.com/

*And when at some point, that part of the process ‘disappeared’, too many jurors took advantage of the situation to willy-nilly reject anyone’s work with no reason besides “just because.” They are in the process of correcting that, after they found out many very talented people had been rejected for vague, inappropriate, or even personal reasons. They may also be considering ways to broaden their own definitions of what is “good enough” work. Yay!

If you found this article helpful, feel free to send the link to someone else who might, too. (Thank you!!)

And if you received this from someone else, and liked it, you can sign up for more of my scribbling here.

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: You Can Be Focused, You Can Be Diverse, It’s All Good!

Topics: advice for artists | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Luann Udell | originality

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career
Luann Udell shared how to be focused and diverse in your art career

You get to choose what you do, how you do it, how many things you do, and you can change it whenever you’re ready.

When the young art students came to my studio, most of them were still in the exploring stage of art-making. Some already felt “more comfortable” with a specific media, but most were trying this and that, and some hadn’t found what really felt right.

That’s normal! I encouraged them to keep exploring. This stage could take a few years, it could take a decade, it might take more than that. Maybe…..for the rest of their lives!

I think some of them were a little surprised by that. It seemed that some were already feeling the pressure to pick “just one thing” or “just one process” (painting, for example, or drawing, etc.) (It may have been more societal pressure than pressure from their teachers.)

I told them, “If you’ve already figured that out, good on you! But if you haven’t, that’s normal, too. These are the perfect years to explore and experiment. In fact, you might incorporate “new and different” for the rest of your life! And that’s okay.”

Focus is a good thing, of course. When we push all our efforts in one direction, into one medium or process, we can make enormous strides in our skill set.

But that’s not the only way to be a “real artist”. And when people tell us it IS the only way, and we don’t want to do it that “one right way”, it can feel soul-crushing.

Years ago, I attended a seminar with a well-known speaker who created a series of workshops about all kinds of artist/maker issues: How to market our work, how to display it at shows and in galleries, how to talk with customers, etc. All excellent information, garnered not only from their own career as a maker, but from dozens of others who shared their insights with him.

When it was my turn to ask a question, I started to frame my body of work: “So I do jewelry, fiber work, and printing, and I’d like to know…..”

They interrupted me mid-sentence: “FOCUS!!!!”

The whole room erupted into laughter, and I was humiliated. The speaker went on to explain that “certain clueless craftspeople” get into doing everything: “I raise the sheep, I shear the sheep, I spin the wool, I dye the yarn, I make the pattern, I knit the sweater….” They end up with a product that can’t be reasonably priced, and then wonder why their work doesn’t sell. The speaker moved on to the next person.

That wasn’t my problem, and I was pretty peeved. Afterwards, I went up to ask for clarification, and they apologized. “I wanted to make an example of you, because that comes up all the time! But I see now that isn’t what you were sharing, and I’m sorry.”

There’s a lesson there: Don’t make assumptions about the “stupid questions” people ask us. (As in, “How long did it take you to make that?” “It took me thirty years to make!”) (Yes, there are a dozen better ways to answer that question without making a joke at that potential customer’s expense!)

“Lack of focus” was not an issue for me. I already knew I was “doing it right”, FOR ME. I was perfectly comfortable with my multi-media choices, because I had a powerful story that united them. From the very beginning of my art career, people could recognize my distinctive style, use of color, and use of artifacts, even in the different ways I staged them.)

I wanted to know how to approach the top retail shows in the country that, typically, demanded I pick ONE medium to apply in. And usually my jewelry wouldn’t be accepted, because it’s a dense medium at high-end fine craft shows. Often half the applicants are jewelers! I wanted help figuring out how to get out of the “box” most shows and exhibits want to put us creatives in.

(I never solved that, but finally figured out ways around it.)

Nowadays, whenever I ask people about their creative work, I get a wonderful variety of answers. But the ones where I sense folks feel the most embarrassment is when they haven’t focused completely on “just one thing”.

“Oh, I’m not a real artist! I love oil painting, but I’ve also enjoy watercolor and pastels, and I’ve taken clay workshops and loved it, and I want to….” And then they sort of trail off, waiting for me to tell them to “focus”.

I refuse.

I ask them what their goals are, and listen. Unless they feel “held back” by their free choices, I almost always tell them to embrace their path.

From their reaction, I’m guessing no one has ever told them that’s okay. Which is sad.

Some of us know the medium that speaks to us. We leap into with all our heart, and pursue it, perfecting our skills, finessing our techniques, perhaps (hopefully!) even receiving recognition and acclaim for our work.

Others, like me, take longer to figure it out. We try different things, or keep up with several things, until we find our way through.

For me, I did fiber work for years: Cross-stitching (easy!), then embroidery (harder!), then quilting (so much time!!), getting smaller and freer and focusing on making something that looked aged and worn. I got to the point where I rarely bought new fabrics, and instead scrounged yard sales, thrift stores, and antique shops for unusual, vintage, and antique fabrics, and well-worn clothing. Eventually, when I couldn’t find what I wanted, I began to over-dye my own fabrics, and even carved my own stamps to print fabric.

When my kids were born, I knit them sweaters. (Hey, it’s faster to knit for a little kid than an adult, and they’re a lot less fussy about how it fits!) (But you also have to work fast, or they’ll grow out of whatever you’re making for them….)

Eventually, I was frustrated trying to find the perfect buttons for those sweaters, and so I began to make my own.

I couldn’t afford expensive jewelry, didn’t like much of it anyway. I loved the look of old pieces. I started buying broken or out-of-date bits and pieces, restringing them or salvaging the beads for other projects. One year, I was accepted into an exhibit for art quilts, and forgot to read the fine print: Beadwork was required. So I “explained” that the beads I used were too tiny to be seen in the photograph, and frantically added seed beadwork to the finished pieces. (I won a Judges’ Choice Award!)

And I also began using those sweater buttons as embellishments on my art quilts.

Are you sensing an epiphany here? It’s coming!

Until the day came where I stepped up to the plate with my “mom crafts” and found my powerful story, where I found my place in the world as an artist.

All those “little crafty things” I’d been doing for years all came together to make something different. Something unique. Something that became my signature, so that now, people who are familiar with my work, can spot it in almost any form.

If I had “found my perfect medium” all those years ago, I would not be making the work I do today.

Would I be better off? How do I know? We choose a path, and our story is changed forever. I don’t regret my “aimless wanderings” that eventually brought me the work I love with all my heart. I choose to celebrate the skills and insights I gained along the way.

Some of us will “do it right”, focusing on a specific medium and style. Some of us will explore, constantly adding, tweaking, mixing it up. And some may never “settle” into one or two things. They will explore, and experiment, and dabble for the rest of their lives.

My question for them: Are you happy with that?

Because if you are, that’s all that matters.

What matters, first and foremost, is that our work brings us joy.

Oh, not 24/7. I get that. Sometimes things just don’t click, or we get tired of the same ol’ same ol’. (Usually we get our happy back, though!) And if we want to get really, really good at something, we have to put in the time and the work.

Some people pursue one style, or medium, and then walk away from it and pursue something else. That’s okay, too.

And some of us find total joy in the new, the experimenting. Some people only make art when they take classes. Which, I tell them, is really smart! If you can’t make time for your art, then taking a class is an excellent way to set aside the time (to go to class), to experiment (with all the tools and expertise provided by the teacher that you’ll need) and come home with something you love (because you had the chance to actually finish it!)

In our modern times, art is both a necessity (for our emotional/spiritual health) and a luxury (we can all choose what, when, how, and why we “make”). We get to choose how we fit it into our lives, we get to decide whether it’s our “one thing”, our “main thing”, or our “fun thing”.

Somewhere along the line, the word “amateur” (which means doing something because you love it, whether we make money at it or not) became a hugely judge-y thing: “Oh, you’re not a professional, you’re just an amateur!”

In reality, “amateur”, “vocational”, and “avocational” are all on the same spectrum. We do it because we love it, and it supports us, financially, and we do it as if it really were our profession- doing all the steps that a “true professional” artist would do, even if we don’t actually make a lot of money at it. And a few professionals actually step back from that stance, because they find the demands of catering to a market, and having to do the same thing, the same way, for the same people, actually saps some of the joy from our process. They find other ways to earn income, something they’re good at that pays well, and that they like or even love, yet keep their artwork in their life, on their own terms.

It’s all good.

Because when we accept all the reasons that show us we’re “doing it right”, the more art, the more beauty, the more joy there will be in the world.

So keep on keeping on, I told those kids. Do what you can. Do what you want. Do what you have to do. You get to choose.

Make it work for Y-O-U, finding your unique happy place in the world with your art.

The whole world is waiting to see “what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life…”*

*From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)