Whether or not an object is art has little to do with materials and functionality and has everything to do with intent and voice. The difference between an object that is craft and an object that is art is not the difference between a basket and a drawing. The medium is irrelevant. In fact, a basket has as great an opportunity to be a piece of art as a drawing and a drawing can be better crafted than a very artistic basket. A quilt intended to lie on a be can be a piece of art whereas a quilt that hangs on a wall could simply be well crafted. So what is the difference between art and craft and why should we care?
We should care because these words and their often confusing definitions leave those of us who practice an art (or create an object) using traditional (or not so traditional) fiber techniques are left without an appropriate way to name ourselves. We live in a world full of names and we are either misnamed or nameless. This is important because it effects the way others view what we do. We must clearly define who we are so that we can clearly define what is we make to the world that is our market.
The difference between art and craft–and hence the artist and the craftsperson–is astonishingly simple. A craftsperson masters a technique and a tradition. It is of paramount importance for a craftsperson to strive for perfection. To paraphrase Plato: ‘If only there were enough time in life to perfect one’s craft.’ As any true craftsperson knows, there is never enough time. Perfection is enticingly elusive and endlessly inspiring. However, the craft alone that we strive to perfect is not necessarily art even when brilliantly executed. Artisits, working n whatever medium, push the boundaries of form, trying to escape from prescribed ideas while trying to express an inward intention. Artists retreat inside themselves for their answers whereas craftspeople explore outside themselves for theirs. An artist’s medium can be anything. An artist is not necessarily a craftsperson. In fact, there are many artists who have not bothered to perfect their craft and therefore, although their work might be inspired, it can be very shoddy and temporary.
This leads us to the third definition of what we can be when we create things. It is this definition that causes the most obfuscation because it straddles the other two. It is also the thing that many fiber artists are: the artist/craftsperson. This person gets attacked from one side for being too technique oriented and from the other for assuming a grandiose self-image. The artist/craftsperson is simply an artist who is striving to perfect her or his craft. The concept is elegant in its simplicity, but it is also very slippery and hard to hold.
When set up on a kind of continuum, the line starts with craft as pure technique and ends with art as pure expression. Those of us who are makers of things necessarily lie somewhere on that line. And often our position on that line changes, sometimes day to day. There are times when we are still perfecting our craft and there are other days when we are passionately digging inside ourselves for the image that defines what we are. That is not an exalted image of an artist. Nor is it hyperbole since the act of creating a piece of art dwells so completely in the world of truth where everything ultimately is exposed. We may borrow techniques from those who have come before us, but when we create what is uniquely ours with the memory of what was we borrow only from the human experience we have shared. There is no confusion over what is art and what is craft. There is only disbelief.