Art? Craft?

It seems that the hoary old arguments about art and craft have
surfaced again. Well, here’s my 2c worth. My definition of art is
that it simply consists of an idea; a thought in someone’s mind, no
more no less. But what’s the value of an idea if it isn’t able to be
communicated? A flower blooming in the desert unseen by humans still
get insects or animals and birds to visit it. So the definition needs
expanding. Art then is an idea which is capable of being communicated.
So, is mathematics art? Well, by my definition, yes. The fact that I
don’t understand it is nothing to do with the case - so long as as
some person does, but if someone understands what the
mathematician/artist has in mind, then yes it is art. So, sometimes
an idea, even a complicated idea, can be communicated, and the methods
of communication are legion. I can talk about my idea, I can put my
talk into writing, but some people still won’t understand what I am on
about. So I can draw it, paint it, make a model of it, (and photograph
it) carve it from a matrix like wood, and so on. And it is at this
point of communication that we get into the area of craft. The better
I am at manipulating media the better you should be able to understand
my idea. Right? It ain’t necessarily so. And language - method of
communication? Whatever medium I choose to communicate my idea to
the people whom I want to affect by my idea, must be able to
understand whatever language/medium I choose. So how am I to know
what you have in mind if you show me some sticks and pebbles you have
scattered about a hunk of twisted rusty iron? You can’t really expect
me to understand what you are on about. Or write down your idea in
language and symbols I don’t understand. You have to educate me first.
I don’t really understand Picasso. Is that because he couldn’t use
his craft to express his idea(s) well enough? Or is it because I am
uneducated? And how do you separate fli- flam and 'precious’
pretension from honest knowledge? We had a very famous contemporary
artist in NZ called Colin McCahon, whose artistic ability is
positively revered in this country. His paintings are priced at many
tens of thousands of dollars. I wouldn’t give one space on a hard
disc. I MUST be an uneducated philistine!! But cheers anyway!

John Burgess


If a computer can do it without Human creative control, it isn’t Art.
That’s one definition which works for me…and its why I don’t
consider most forms of mathematics to be “Art”.

Quantum Physics, on the other hand…well…you could convince
me that Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein are artists. Perhaps this
isn’t so simple after all. Soon we may have neural net computers which
are self-conscious. Will they be capable of creating “Art”?

One of my favorite Professors in college said “I can’t define a poem
for you - but I know one when I see it.” That may be the best
definition of Art I’ve ever heard. This is truly a difficult
question…and I love difficult questions. :slight_smile:

Cheers right back at you!


Hello John, I agree with most of your dissertation of art/craft. In
most cases we are both. It depends on the circumstances. If I make
a piece of jewelry or should I say art metal design from inside my
soul, good or bad, this is art. I am communicating a feeling.
However, a lot of us spend as much or more time developing the
mechanical skills required to execute. When I sell my skill as a
mechanic to make a piece of personal decoration for someone else, I
am in most cases just interpreting the wishes of my client. I am a
craftsperson. I look at a piece differently in these situations. I
looked it over, checked the workmanship and delivered it. I feel the
joy of doing a good job, but it is not of me. This is really not an
answer, It is just the way I feel about the subject. I have been
retired for five years so it is academic. good luck

Hi all, as always John has intelligent and thoughtful ideas to put
forward. In the UK we have the Crafts Council which works hard to
promote the crafts. The publish a bi-monthly magazine called Crafts,
the magazine of the applied arts. As far as I am concerned this is a
good definition for crafts. To apply artistic ideas to a practical
usable object. Traditionally, in most societies, art has combined
practical and aesthetic functions. In the 18th century in the West,
however, a more sophisticated public began to distinguish between art
that was purely aesthetic and art that was also practical. The fine
arts (French beaux arts)-including literature, music, dance,
painting, sculpture, and architecture-are concerned primarily with
aesthetics. The decorative or applied arts, such as pottery,
metalwork, furniture, tapestry, and enamel, are often useful arts and
for a time were demoted to the rank of crafts. To a large extent this
has stuck. The craft movement has, to a certain extent only itself to
blame, tolerating the mediocre and not redefining itself as applied
art with equal status with the fine arts. It is up to individual
craftsmen and women to regard themselves as equal to (and often
better than) fine art.

The first step is a journey of a thousand miles

My wife is a watercolorist, I’m a lapidary and metalsmith. We both
experience that creative burst, where something other than us takes
over; the result is definitely art. We wish it happened more
frequently. The rest of the time we pursue our respective crafts, and
hope for another takeover!

To those who say that faceting is only craft rather than art, due to
its intensely mathematical nature, I can only say this: consider
pocket billiards or golf. Even good equipment doesn’t guarantee a good
stone, the operator has an artistic role.

Jim Small

Hi John, Funny thing I was listening to my one of my favorite talk
show hosts last Friday, the topic was art (mostly because of that
Madonna with the Elephant Dung) anyway here was his definition of
Art: “If I can to it, it isn’t Art. If I can’t then it is Art” I
thought that was an interesting concept. But then the American NEA has
their own definition of Art, and who can ever understand what that
is? I wish I could be enlightened. Anyway, thank-you John for
explaining in better words than I can on that etching thing.
Cheers from up here.Susan Chastain

Could we not define “Art” as that which we imagine? the idea in our
own mind of how we conceive what this piece will look like? what we
want to accomplish by translating the idea to the reality? And
"craft" as the techncial skill we work to obtain, in order to
translate the idea (or ideal) in our mind to the reality we hold in
our hand? And neither art nor craft is complete without the other, I
don’t think…I can sit here and have wonderful images in my mind, and
put them down on paper–but if I don’t have the technical skills to
translate the idea and the drawing into the metal
and stone, I have no craft, do I? Sharon Holt

If you’re curious about how that creative burst might happen and how
you can have a little more control over going into that mode, read
"The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain " by Betty Edwards.
If you don’t currently know how to draw, working through the book
will also teach you that.


IMHO the NEA is highly prejudiced and controlled by a tight clique
who exhibit a herd mentality. They endow a limited arena of effete and
weak art, fearing to diverge from the present fads and fashions. that
is why I keep my day job, so I can make my own art instead of having
to appease a committee of dunces. Geo.

To jump in here…my students toss computer/handmade art question
around alot. Being students and questioning everything!! My response to
them is 'If the process causes carpul(sp)-tunnel syndrome then the
object is handmade. Art is from ‘artifact’ meaning man made. Good and
bad, art or craft is a subjective judement and varies with each
person. Sue

Aahh… it heartens me enormously to be reassured by the good
commonsense of Orchidists. Good on you, John Burgess, for stirring the
possum on arts ‘n’ crafts. And thanks to Peter, hamrsetter, and
Richard Whitehouse (love your site, Richard), Sharon, Jim, and Susan
for your wonderfully sensible responses on this topic. Kind regards,
Rex from Oz


I was discussing the definition of Art with my stepdaughter, who is
12, before this string started and she asked the question…"Do you
consider buildings Art? I remembered my days in Art History I said
yes…but then I though of my house…and I certainly don’t consider
by home a piece of art…more like a piece of work. So this on
Orchid led me to look up what Webster’s dictionary had to say on the
subject…1."skill acquired by experience or study. 2. a branch of
learning; esp : one of the humanities. 3. an occupation requiring
knowledge or skill. 4. The use of skill and imagination in the
production of things of beauty;

Reminds me of what my mother taught me “that beauty is in the eye of
the beholder”

So there you have it…“Life is Art”

Linda Crawford
Linda Crawford Designs

Hello All,

This ongoing discussion over craft and art always intrigues me, I love
to see the various definitions. I always ask my students (I teach
visual arts) what their definition of art is on the first day of
class and I always get a wide variety of answers…we then talk about
each. I’m a modern traditionalist, meaning I have an open mind but
approach every medium from the beginning, so I have a good idea of
what anything takes to accomplish. In open defiance to the axiom
"Those who can, do; those who can’t ,teach" I could always do just
about anything (with the appropriate week-month-year(s) learning
curve) so I teach because I can accommodate all styles and media.
Here’s what I tell my kids: Art is communication (as Peter(s), John
and Sharon have said , I printed those emails out for class
discussion) in any form. An artist is someone who presents those ideas
in tangible form. So anyone who wants to scribble be an artist? Those
I call ‘student artists’. Those who are learning the ins and outs of a
medium, or the ‘craft’ of presenting an idea in a singular medium or
composition of mediums. An “Artist” is someone who has mastered or
gained competency over medium and can control presentation. ( For
example, Jackson Pollock was an artist in terms of aesthetic
presentation, not visual arts. He himself admitted that control of
media was beyond his abilities.) Somehow “crafts/craftsperson” has
been associated with artists who produce usable products but have not
been formally trained in the traditional fine arts. I find this to be
misleading. A person/artist/craftsman who can take a piece of jewelry,
fix it and add parts to a customer’s request is exhibiting extreme
control over the media, as much as a designer communicating their own
ideas. The ‘craft’ is an extension of their skill and manipulation of
a variety of experience.The same with a ceramicist, etc. An editor is
a wordsmith who helps writers refine their work, that makes the writer
an artist who is learning the craft. See my point? Kurt Vonnegut is
considered an “artist” because his work is not edited for his specific
reasons. Crafts, on the whole , have been slightly maligned by society
and the complacency of the artists who do not strive for more control
and advancement of their skills, because of how society/culture views
them. Sort of an academic Catch-22.

Sorry if I ranted and/or raved a little,
Best regards to all artists, students and freethinkers,

Terry Swift
Seattle, WA

But when the piece is finished, is it a work or art? or a work of
craft? I really think the two as you have defined them are a
continuum, and inseparable, and that the (technical) skills involved
in doing a really superb job of translating the idea are also art. I
think the word “craft” has become (improperly) stretched and skewed
down through the years to also include many of the aspects of art.
(Everybody wants to be an “artist” rather than a “craftsman” because
"artist" is considered more prestigious). But this is really something
peple are never going to agree on, because we are all individuals, all
different, (and hoorah for that!) and thus everybody’s idea of “art"
is a little different. If you like it, it’s art. If you don’t, it’s
not. Which is fine, that’s how it should be! So we’ll just keep going
around in circles. When I took my first screenwriting course in
college, one very basic thing we were taught was that what we wrote
needed to make a statement, to say something. And, also that it
needed to be done in a such manner that the people who viewed the film
made from that script could also understand it. The same basic
principle has to apply to art. The paintings of many of the modern
artists say absolutely nothing to me. Often even the artist cannot
tell you what he/she was trying to say. And if he/she doesn’t
understand it, how can we be expected to? As I understand it, in
jewelry the idea is (or should be) something like “I have this
beautiful gem, (or a real gem of a rock), and I want to put it in a
setting that draws attention to it and makes it even more
beautiful.” Or, in some cases, to construct a beautiful shape that
will be complemented and made more beautiful by the judicious use of a
few gems or rocks. And this is where both “artistry” and
"craftsmanship” (as you define it) are involved. A lot of the jewelry
I see today in magazines etc. also says nothing to me, except that the
maker has so cluttered it up with a lot of extraneous geegaws that
attention is completely drawn away from what should be the center of
attraction. It doesn’t make any statement (except that of chaos). Yet
it (like the paintings of the artists who don’t even know what their
pictures are trying to say) is often highly acclaimed by the
"critics". We don’t have to understand it, or like it; we’re just
supposed to like what they tells us to like. Well, this has perhaps
strayed off course a little, and I’m sure many will disagree with me;
but I think it may help unmuddy things a bit. Margaret

Orchidians, I cannot help myself…

It looks like its time to get out the etiological foudroyant and get
down to it: art- human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or
counteract the work of nature… frm Latin: ars as in arse as pain

craft- skill or ability in something especially in handiwork or the
arts. to make by or as if by hand. frm Old English craeft…as in
witchcraeft… to take disparate elements and make something useful.

It is the height of simplistic arrogance to eliminate or discount
someones work because one or a group of ones cannot “get it”… Van
Gogh was not gotten til long after his death… to relegate something
that someone has made into a category so as to be comfortable not
having to entertain the creators interactions with what ever medium is

Perception is everything… so perceive on and have a good time

All the best in all things,

Bill Jewelry,Gems,Crystals ICQ# 8835495
Contemporary, Metaphysical & New Age Symbols of Personal empowerment
Web Monk WebSite Design Service 334-645-9081

The NEA did not underwrite the controversial exhibition at the
Brooklyn Museum . It was a private collection sent from England and
if I read my newspapers correctly, Christies was instrumental in
getting the collection to the museum. Taxpayers’ money did not
subsidize it. Dee.

'If the process causes carpul(sp)  [actually, carpal ]-tunnel
syndrome then the object is handmade. Art is from 'artifact'
meaning man made.  

“Art” is from the Latin Ars , artis meaning “skill (in any craft,)
the art(of any profession,) a work of art, or virtue.” “Artifact” is
a combinant of “Art” and “facere” meaning “to make, create, compose

Just trying to keep things a little straighter.


Dear Terrence et al:

After staring at this thread title for days it came back to me, by
Dylan Thomas:

		"In my craft and sullen art,
		Exercised in the still night,
		When only the moon rages, 
		And the lovers lie abed, 
		With all their griefs in their arms . . . . "

I would quote the whole thing, but I want to respect the artist and
his copyright, but go read it and see if it helps with the
definition. Damn fine poem, anyway.


Margaret, I think that an artist cannot tell you what he/she was
trying to say is immaterial. Their work is the communication. That is
their form of expression. A person can be a great painter, sculptor,
goldsmith, etc. and not be particularly verbally articulate. If their
work speaks to you, great, if it doesn’t, that’s ok. I don’t think
that artists should have to justify or explain their work with the
written or spoken word. What does anyone else think?


My etymological dictionary says it’s from Old French “art”, derived
from Latin “ars, art-” meaning to fit together.

The computer is a tool, just as the brush or chisel are. An artist
can produce art using a computer just as he can using a brush.

Next question: If a computer generates a painting by itself, using
only general principles of aesthetics, AND an art expert cannot pick
this painting out of a “lineup” with other, manmade, works which are
judged to be art, is the computer’s painting also art?

Good and bad, art or craft is a subjective judement and varies with
each person. Sue