The Handmade Dilemma: Is It Art Or Is It Craft?

I’ve made things with my hands for my whole life. I’ve been knitting for 25 years and making quilts for 20. And over the years, I’ve struggled to understand just what my creations are. According to the powers that be, some of my quilts are art and most of my knitting is not. But where do you draw the line? How do you know where craft ends and art begins?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, art work is the product of imagination. The artist imagines something, and then she constructs a piece to communicate that idea. Whether she uses concrete materials like paint or abstract concepts like words, the result is based on her inner vision. Craft is the skill with which something is made, and the dictionary even mentions artists as the sort of people who need this sort of skill.

Art and craft clearly overlap. The greater an artist’s craft, the better art she can make. And a craftsman of great experience can produce works of art. But a Venn diagram doesn’t satisfy some people. They want separate boxes to put things in, a way to assess the value of an object, and the labels “art” and “craft” are often used to make this judgment.

artVsCraft

I questioned my ability as an artist when my family put on an art show in 2009. My parents and my sister are all accomplished artists in their respective fields: Dad is a photographer, Mom makes sculptures and tiles from clay, and my sister makes glass beads and sculpture. They devote their time to their visual arts and all of them sell their work.

I spend my time writing. Quilting and knitting are my hobbies, things I dabble in. While I spend lots of time on my projects, I do not put in the hours they do. When I saw my work in the gallery with theirs, I was embarrassed and ashamed. Several of the pieces screamed “amateur” and my Inner Art Snob made sure I knew it.

However, many people loved my work. Several were disappointed that specific pieces weren’t for sale because they would have bought them if they were. I don’t know if they saw them as art or craft. I’m not sure they cared. For whatever reason, they were attracted to the work and wanted it to live in their house. I tell my Inner Art Snob “they loved it” and then stop my ears to keep from hearing that the person is an idiot.

If we go back to what the dictionary said, then what is art should have to do with the imagination, how much of the artist’s vision goes into the work. This argues that someone making a quilt from a kit or following a purchased knitting pattern is just a machine following instructions to produce someone else’s vision.

But the most careful knitter who recreates a pattern to perfection still dreams of the finished project. She thinks about how it will be used, where it will go, who will use or wear it, and how it will symbolize her affection for the owner. Imagination is definitely involved. By applying her skill to achieve her dream, the knitter makes a work that is art and craft combined.

So of the three choices, I vote for the one where we no longer worry about art versus craft and instead just enjoy and accept each handmade object for what it is: a unique creation imbued with the dreams of its maker.

How do you feel about art and craft?

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

10 thoughts on “The Handmade Dilemma: Is It Art Or Is It Craft?”

  1. A couple years ago, I took a drawing class and when the instructor learned I was a quilter, he scoffed. There was going to be no way to explain how many artist use fabric as their medium to express the visions in their head. I felt sorry for him and his narrow minded concept of the world of art. It is inclusive, not exclusive.

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    1. Art snobs are every where but when they are also teachers they can do a lot of damage. Some of the quilters I know have learned rules for making art from quilting teachers, as if there is a right or wrong way to go about it. I hope you didn’t let him keep you from making the things you love to make!

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  2. By the definitions used, I am an artist because I write. Yet, I have trouble thinking of myself as an artist because I don’t draw. Somehow, over the course of my life, the terms “art” and “drawing” have become synonymous.

    I think art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Most of what would appeal to an art “snob” would bore me and vice versa.

    Nice post! It has given me a lot to think about.

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    1. The trained artists in my family tell me that some of the snobbery comes with education. A lot of the “serious” art in galleries and museums is often the result of years of art schooling, the result being that it’s sort of like reading a Ph. D. thesis from some advanced discipline: only those who have already studied the subject a ton have a chance of understanding or appreciating what they see. I’m an art-is-for-everybody thinker, so that sort of elitist art doesn’t interest me. And as you mention, personal preference plays a huge role in deciding what is art. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts.

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  3. I think knitting is an art, and each stitch is a key component to putting the piece of art together. Just like brush strokes on a painting. Then you have to think about the use of color, patterns, dying processes. If knitting isn’t an art, we wouldn’t have all the beautiful pieces of clothing to wear.

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  4. I get this. I always wanted to be an artist, but never had the opportunity to take classes. So I’ve expended that artistic energy on what people call “crafty” ventures. I always feel slightly ashamed of myself for this, as if it’s just oh-so-common of me to do, unlike Real Artists.

    But you know, in more ancient times, all craft was art. No distinction between them.

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  5. My sister and I talk about this issue all the time, and something she has pointed out to me is that even the most original artists tend to be part of a movement. Art/craft ebbs and flows and goes through different stages and being part of that is an important part of being an artist. “Crafty ventures” show the same ebb and flow, with that big revival in interest back in 1976 (when the US celebrated the bicentennial ) that has led in all sorts of interesting directions since. So forget feeling guilty and instead enjoy the fact that you are one with the doers and the makers who are making our world more beautiful with their hearts and their hands.

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