When is craft art?

Niki Pilkington Illustration

Words: Sarah Montrose Feature illustration: Niki Pilkington

The craft revolution has come and gone. Being a stitcher, yarnie or paperist is more popular than ever. And what’s more, craft pioneers such as Kaffe Fassett – whose huge tapestries and patchwork wouldn’t be seen out of place hanging alongside a Monet or late Matisse – have forged the way for craft emerging as an art form itself. But where’s the distinction between craft and art? Is anything creative automatically artistic? Can a Banksy be compared to yarnbombing? Why is Tracey Emin’s bed ‘art’, and someone else’s just an unmade mass of future laundry?

Skills vs ideas

For mixed media textile artist Meghan Wills, the distinction is all about skills. “All art is craft, but not all craft is art,” she says. “If I took a paint by numbers kit, I could work on my painting skills, but that doesn’t make me an artist.”

Michelle Holmes of Arch Angel Studio agrees: “The crafting side of me is the techniques I employ. The ‘artist me’ is the part of myself I put into the work… Making art is an interpretation of the world.”

Artist Kathleen Murphy adds: “I call myself an artist because I think it’s an encompassing description which takes into account not only my practical skills but also an ability or desire to create in an abstract way beyond the original intent of the material or technique I’m using. To some, this is the point where craft becomes art – but I don’t think it’s quite as clear cut as that!”

The line between art and craft is often a fine one, as both can share well-honed practical skills and developed ideas. So is the distinction more that craft usually results in the practical, such as a scarf, or a lampshade? For Kathleen, “I would associate the term ‘crafter’ with someone who enjoys the process of making – even sells their finished work – but for whom the activity is a hobby.”

Kristine Kelly of Gentlework sees a more blurred line: “I think of myself as both a crafter and an artist. The techniques and materials I employ make me a crafter whilst the ideas and messages in the work make me an artist. Though these definitions are entirely subjective.”

Meanwhile, for both Alaina Varrone and Abigail Halpin, it’s more simple: “Fabric and thread are just another medium,” says Alaina. “I’m an artist who’s incorporated craft into their work,” agrees Abigail.

A softer touch

For some, the definition is more black and white. “It’s easier when it comes to ‘traditional’ art forms like painting and sculpture to say ‘that’s art,’” suggests Meghan. “Likewise, it’s easy for some to look at textile work as traditional feminine work and therefore craft.”

So perhaps the only thing stopping craft pieces being seen as works of art is an underlying sexism? Kathleen thinks it’s more subtle than that. “Craft is seen as more accessible by the public than art,” she says. “Because it’s made from materials that are commonplace – clay, wood, cloth – it’s easier to have an immediate and honest reaction to a ‘crafted’ piece without the fear, as is the case with fine art, where often the concern is not understanding its meaning.”

You could argue that viewing a stitched piece of artwork is a ‘softer’ experience, even if the subject is more in your face. Meghan’s States of Undress works are painted and embroidered pieces showing people undressing. She then turned the finished works into animated gifs. “It was all about having fun,” she says. “I thought stitching boobs would be amusing – cartoony and cheeky, but still artistic. Art doesn’t always have to be serious to be considered good.”

What do you think?

So with the established ‘high brow’ notion of the art world being invaded by the tongue-in-cheek, more accessible world of craft, there are certainly some lines blurring as to what constitutes a masterpiece. And, as is always the case with art, it’s all very subjective anyway. As Christine points out: “Marcel Duchamp would say one thing, William Morris might say another. I’d suggest that the truth lies in ideas, messages and questions inherent in the work. Ultimately it has to be left for the beholder to decide. Either way, I’d sooner be at my table with a needle in my hand!” We hear you!

What do you think about the relationship between craft and art? Let us know over on Facebook and Twitter. If you think craft is art, then don’t forget to try out some of our fab, free tutorials or, if you prefer to look at traditional art, then download a new background for your tech and appreciate the art designed by our talented illustrators.