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.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #3

Continuing with my mini-series about how to use Facebook’s “25 Random Things About Me” to write promotional materials.

The next question is from an artist who wrote:

“Hi Luann,
I was intrigued by your letter today in the FAS newsletter. I just joined Facebook to find out more about the “list” of 25 things about yourself. After you compiled the list, how did you write it into an artist statement? I really feel clueless how to start. You are a very good writer!”

(This was the question I was going to answer first because of the compliment. Always feel free to put those in, btw….!!)

Okay, so first, you can’t just use the 25 Random Things as your artist statement. That would be a loooong statement!

The list is a) a warm-up exercise for learning to write easily about yourself. And b) a source for snippets about yourself that get to the heart of what you do.

Just like musicians might play scales to warm up for performing, this list is a warm-up for more ‘serious’ writing.

It’s also a way to ‘warm up’ to putting more passion into your artist statement.

I picked “artist statement” as an end goal for this warm-up exercise. In reality, artists need all kinds of self promotional materials: artist bio, cv (curriculum vitae, sort of a ‘life resume’ with your art as a focus), artist statement, press releases, etc.

Some of your list items are going to jazz up your statement. Because unless you think people go crazy with excitement reading lists of your exhibits and educational background, you must learn to talk about your art with the same passion you use to make it.

You don’t have to go over the top–no drama major needed. But think about ways to talk about your art that shows why it really, really matters to you–and that it isn’t just “something you do” to fill in your spare time. Even if it is only that, you can talk about that in a way that is more engaging than, “Well, I was bored, so I made this stuff.”

Don’t be afraid to tell people what you care about.

Think of the 25 Random Things as a way to collect these things you care about the most. Some of them will provide you with a jumping-off place.

In my last post on this topic, we left off with the suggestion that a good artist statement should make you want to look at the artist’s work again. Some of you did that experiment with the artists I suggested, and graciously acknowledged that it worked. Yay!

The key to the 25 Random Things is, somewhere in a good list, there is something you’ve listed that might make people “look again”.

If your art is light-hearted, your approach to your 25 Random Things list, and your artist statement might be light-hearted, too. Remember–light-hearted art is not necessarily lightweight art. Laughter is powerful medicine. Humor can be a powerful weapon. Whimsy can still be serious stuff.

You might also choose different approaches (more serious, more whimsical) for different applications. For example, the “About Me” section of my blog has a more light-hearted approach. That’s because I want to entertain as well as inspire. Yes, I’m serious about my writing, but I’m willing to laugh at myself, too. (I just don’t want you to be laughing at me too hard, okay?)

The introduction to my art calls for a more serious, inspirational tone. It’s not that I don’t want you to have fun with my work. But it’s not what you’d call “whimsical”. It’s a different manifestation of what I bring to the world.

My actual “artist statement”, is no longer on my website. I realize I should make room for it again.Here’s the short version of it:

I dream of the cave of Lascaux…

Its beautiful paintings of running horses,
born by the flickering light of torches….
Never meant to see the light of day,
yet brought to light in our lifetime.
Survived ten thousand years,
yet nearly destroyed by the breath of ten thousand visitors…
Too delicate to survive the climate of our modern world,
The cave was closed, and finally, sealed.

Lost.
Found.
And lost again.

The horses now run
in the darkness of their cave
forever.

We do not understand the mystery of these paintings.
We know not what they meant to the people who created them.
Their message was not meant for us.

But their beauty and power create profound echoes
in our modern hearts.

What ancient, yearning dreams of hope and beauty
brought forth these haunting images?

Ten thousand years from now,
Who will know the makings of our hands?
And who will know the mysteries of our hearts?

If you go back to my 25 Random Things About My Biz, you will see the seeds of where that statement comes from.

I know there are other “rules” I’m breaking with this statement. I haven’t changed significantly in ten years.

But every time I think of changing it, someone who reads it for the first time tells me how powerful it it is.

And so I keep it.

Just as it’s hard to present you with a template for a statement, it’s hard to give you a step-by-step model for turning your list into a statement. I’m thinking about how to do that, and present it in more manageable form for you. It’s easier to do face-to-face, using a technique I’ll explain next time.

But for now, write up a few lists. Play around with them. Write some in a humorous vein, make others more serious. Put a star next to the entries that create a lump in your throat, or bring tears to your eyes.

Because…I’ll say it again, because it is so important:

Whatever makes you cry, that’s where your heart is.

And where your heart is, that is your truth.

Don’t be afraid to tell people what you really care about.

If it is honest, if it is heartfelt, it will be…POWERFUL. You’ll know. And your audience will know.

And when you speak the truth, it is so powerful, people will hear it and know it for the truth.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #1

My article about using Facebook’s “25 Random Things About Me” exercise to create an artist statement appeared in the FineArtViews newsletter this week.

People are asking me exactly how to do that–turn that list into their statement. Should they just make 25 Random Things into their artist statement??

Well, you could, but I didn’t mean for you to actually do that. For one thing, that’s one looooong artist statement.

Rather, think of the 25 Random Things as a jumping-off exercise to do an actual statement.

I’ll respond to some of these queries today and in upcoming articles. Maybe some examples will help make this more concrete.

I was going to first address the question from someone who told me I was a very good writer. Flattery gets you everywhere!

But a comment from another writer should come first. Because this artist can’t even get started on the 25 Random Things.

The artist left this comment on my blog:

I have been confronted with the list a number of times – but find that I am either too shy or just simply unable to list anything because I am changing too often to want to simply put anything down that would be so permanent that I could not go back and add another two millions or so things on a constant basis

Let’s look at the beliefs behind this block, and address them one at a time. (And I don’t mean to pick on this one reader, because a LOT of artists feel this way…including, from time to time, ME.)

Shy I can’t help you with. Except…

Nobody will care more than YOU do, about what you do.

Corollary: If you can’t articulate why what you do is amazing, or explain why we should care about it, you won’t even be able to communicate that to someone you HIRE to do it FOR you.

Here’s an article I wrote awhile back about why it’s important to step up to the plate with your artist statement, your promotional materials, and yes, your 25 Random Things.

It’s not about writing “two million things”, it’s about selecting 25 things.

What would you think if an artist said, “I can’t paint, there are just too many things in the world I could paint. I can’t make up my mind which one to paint, so I just won’t paint at all.”

That’s not a painter with too much to do. That’s a great excuse for not being a painter at all.

We know this person is an artist. We’re going to apply the same principles to getting out and making art, to getting out there and doing the list, and getting out there and writing an artist statement.

You’re selective when you make your art. Be selective when you make your list.

This will help when you do your artist statement, too. Most artist statements are far too long. I saw one once at a show that was a full typewritten page, with miniscule margins in an even minisculer font. (Yes, I know minisculer is not a real word–I made it up!) I tried and tried to read it, and kept losing my place.

Plus it was just plain boring, which is sad because the work was exciting. Plainly, the artist had trouble putting the same passion that drove him to make that work, into his artist statement…. Which brings me to my next point:

It’s 25 interesting things, okay?

More on this in the articles ahead. And why most artist statements sound alike, and how to make your stand out.

Anything you write has to stay that way…forever! (NOT)

Now, I know I’ve stated in other articles that what you say online is there a long time. But the truth is, it will take some digging to find. Your little list of 25 Random Things is not the Gutenberg Bible. It’s not written in stone, either.

When you do those million other things, you can simply go back and change it. Or heck, write a new one. It’s okay–nobody cares how many times you do it!

It’s just for fun.

Nobody is keeping track of how many times you do it. Nobody is keeping score. Nobody is hanging out on Facebook with a judge’s hat on, saying, “Well, he had a good rhythm, you could dance to it, but the lyrics…!! I give it a 5.”

What’s matter-of-fact for you might be HOLY COW!! I DIDN’T KNOW THAT ABOUT YOU! for someone else.

I always think the oddest thing about my martial arts practice(s) is how old I am. In reality, most people are amazed I do it at all. I guess “artist” never seems to go hand-in-hand with kung fu.

Just as the things you’ve done so long or so long ago, they are something you hardly think about, could be a hook for your audience. I never knew my friend Mark was a yoga nut. Or that my friend Judy knows more about football than anyone else I know. It enriches my relationship with them.

Last, I recognize one of the blocks, this because I suffer from this one myself:

Perfectionism.

Here’s a tip: Perfectionism=Stultifying

Perfectionism keeps us from doing anything until we can do it perfectly. When, in reality, practice makes perfect.

The only cure for perfectionism is….

Start where you are. When you know better, do better.

If you don’t want to publish your list on Facebook, then don’t. But write it in a notebook or a journal. Set it aside for now. Pull it out when I write the next article on what to do with those 25 Random Things.

Extra credit homework: A list of some good articles I wrote on self promotion for artists.

25 RANDOM THINGS ABOUT YOU: How to Write a Better Artist Statement

Use a silly little Facebook game to put more passion in your artist statement.

An article in our local newspaper discussed the current Facebook phenomenon, “25 Random Things About Me”. Apparently, it’s the most popular Facebook “Notes” feature of all time.

Why??

The article suggests it proves that we all love to talk about ourselves, especially the younger generation usually found on Facebook. (Although it turns out every age group on Facebook, including mine, is hopping on the “25 Random Things” list. I’m always amused at how we talk about other generations’ differences as if they were a different species…)

Emily Nussbaum, editor-at-large for New York magazine, says the most decisive difference is that the Facebook generation “assumes they have an audience”: They have a mental image of a large group of people interested in postings such as “25 Random Things.” Part of their identity rests on an invisible entourage that accompanies them everywhere.

It’s also an exercise to creatively select “facts” about ourselves that puts us in the best possible light. A little humor, and voila! A captivating mini-bio that reveals us as a delightful individual.

Is that so awful?

“Random Things” lister (Joe) Diorio has his own theory about why the lists and commentaries have become so popular. It has a piquant irony: “We spend so much of our lives online with Facebook, LinkedIn, and we spend so much time connected that we feel disconnected. So we tell people these little things, to feel more connected. We put a piece of ourselves out there, to give it a try.”

Isn’t this what art is all about? To connect what is in our heart to a larger audience?

Look, it IS hard to “stand out” in a world of a bajillion people. I’m a fairly outgoing person with a variety of ways to connect to my environment–parent, artist, assorted pastimes, social networks. In my own smallish town of Keene, NH, there are 25,000 people. What percentage of those people actually know who I am? Or care?

And yet to effectively market my art, to create an audience for the work I feel compelled to make, I may need to forge connections across a whole region, a country, perhaps over several continents.

So how do I make my work, and myself, stand out? How do I connect meaningfully with a larger audience?

We always assume it’s only about the quality of the work. Is it?

Good work helps. Great photography (so people can see our good work) helps. Publicity, self-promotion, advertising, exposure/exhibiting all help.

But what always grabs me is a good artist statement–an exquisite example of creative non-fiction. The ultimate “25 Random Things” list.

It should be true. But specific enough tell us something. “I just love color” or “I just love music” doesn’t tell me a single damn thing about your work.

It can be about your education or training. But that can’t be the whole thing. Typical artist statements often list the other, more famous artists someone studied under. To me that reads as, “I’m ALMOST as good as they are, but my work is a lot cheaper!”

It should be so well written as to be elegant. More often, it’s full of jargon and buzzwords (aka “artspeak”) that simply hides who you really are and what you’re really doing.

Here’s what I think it should be:

It should be aspects of the world at large that you experience through the lens of your unique perspective, your individual experience–in a way that explores, reveals and creates wonder in your audience.

It’s your honest, thoughtful explanation of why you create the work you do.

And why we should care.

Because that’s part of our human nature–to be interesting to other people. And to be interested in other people. We are social animals, after all, from the exuberant “look at me!” to the thoughtful “I never thought of it that way before….”

But if really connect with an audience, you have to dig a little deeper. Reveal a little more. Be a little more honest. Be more real.

Show us something human.

To quote the article again:

That communal aspect is what so much commentary misses about “25 Random Things.” It’s not just a list; it’s a communal exercise. Posters post, and friends comment.

What’s that commentary like? An unscientific survey of more than 30 such lists has yet to uncover anything vicious or unkind. Mostly, the virtual community is, in Nussbaum’s words, “surprisingly supportive, sweet, even encouraging.” It is nurturing, a thing friends do.

And that’s what I love about the 25 Things.

Every time someone I “know” writes one, I’m amazed at what I read. New facets of their personality, their history, their hopes, fears and dreams are revealed. They seem deeper and richer to me. I’m in awe of what has been shared.

I feel more connected.

I care.

Don’t be afraid to do this with your audience, your customers. Give them something real about you to connect with.

Your homework for today, should you choose to accept it, is to compile your own 25 Random Things list about you as an artist. I compiled such a list for my biz awhile back. In it are some of the stories that compel me to make my art.

I think I’ll be revisiting this list from time to time. I think it will continue to change as I get closer to discovering what makes me tick. As I get more clear about what it is I want to say. As I get closer to figuring out what it is I want to contribute to the world.

As I begin to understand how truly and completely fallible, lovable, annoying, loving, inspirational, wicked, kind, forgiving….how human…I really am.