But is it art?

Woodturning: art vs. craftPMILL

This question has been kicked around a long time, by a lot of people smarter than I. So I don’t expect to add anything original, but I would like to pass along an idea I find appealing.

The question has been on my mind for decades. Early on, I made my living as a Commercial photographer (note the capital C) and often wondered if my images, however artfully done, could be called art. I concluded no. I proudly considered myself a craftsman. Still do.

I was once invited, by the chairman of the Art Department at a college where I worked, to talk about photography to one of his classes. I recall one student asked me what kind of pictures I liked to take best.  I horrified all present when I replied, “Them what pays the most.”

Around that same time I figured out I could be very creative for a price, but it seemed artists were motivated to work whether or not a check was involved.  Hmm.

I’ve been paying serious attention to woodturning lately. I’ve sat through hundreds of demonstrations, read extensively, and talked with a lot of turners. I’ve also eyeballed thousands of turned objects (and carved, textured pierced, colored, and inlaid), which range from craptacular to exquisite. I’ve produced pieces I showed with pride—and some firewood.

Where is the line between art and craft? Does it matter? Are they the only categories to be considered? In his wonderful book, Woodturning Design, Mike Darlow opens his discussion of this question by admitting there is no clear demarcation. Huge gray area.

As he explores the subject further he says, “A perceived difference between art and craft concerns quantity. Manufacturing is often concerned with huge quantities, craft permits batch production, but an essence of art works is that each is unique.”

So, if I make only one, it’s art; if I make ten, it’s craft; if I make 1,000, it’s manufacturing?  Hmm.

My grandson’s high-school art teacher offers the explanation that crafts are three-dimensional objects that have a practical purpose; art is two-dimensional (!) and exists only to appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities. Hmm. Hmm.

Is it all about the money?

I was surprised once, walking through a display of turned objects at a symposium, when a fellow next to me said, “Isn’t that a nice piece? I wonder what he gets for those.” I was satisfied to agree that yes, it was a lovely piece.  The idea of market value didn’t enter my mind.

It seems that as a turner progresses he (she) more or less naturally grows into the idea of selling his work. Makes sense, I guess. When one runs out of room at home, and friends and relatives no longer chortle with glee over another cherry burl doodad, what’s to be done? Hey, I know, I’ll sell it!

There is a market for this output, and better work brings higher prices. So it is certainly logical to relabel one’s shop a studio and rebrand oneself not as a mere craftsperson, but as a person of unusual, (mystical is even better) talent. An artist. There’s more money in it.

I came across a turner in the UK who blogs that this is a good thing—the higher prices some fetch are good for the craft (oops, art) as a whole. We should encourage these turners. If money is the test, he may have a point.

A purer test

For what it’s worth, I’d like to pass along for your consideration an idea I’ve warmed to over the years. It is very simple but its greatest appeal is simply that it strikes me as obviously true. Here it is:


Craft is about the object. Art is about the idea.


There you go. Cuts through the blather, doesn’t it? Well, most of it; still leaves us plenty of gray area to debate where to slot any particular piece. But one thing seems clear: it makes it a little tougher to perceive most* turned objects as art, doesn’t it?

I think so, and that’s okay with me. I always thought it a high compliment to be considered a craftsman.

*We have all seen works that are jaw-dropping gorgeous. Inspired and inspiring.  No problem calling their makers artists.

BTW, have you noticed how many of these pieces are barely identifiable as turnings? So much has been done to them off the lathe one can hardly discern what was done on the machine.

So what?  I don’t know. What do you think?

5 Responses to But is it art?

  1. You and I have had this discussion a few times. From those talks this is what I’ve embraced.

    In martial arts classes as well as business, the way I’ve presented this arguement: anyone can follow the instructions and repeat it to make something over and over like an assembly line…(white belt -black belt). That’s a craftsperson.

    I believe you’re an artist when you take those learned habits and create your own vision or idea …you take your knowledge and do something original with it…expression. In martial arts, this kicks in around 2nd/3rd Dan.

  2. Nice article Stephen – I especially like your no frills explanation. I agree with that. But I also think that art is the innovation of an existing idea and craft is the replication of the innovation (en masse or no). The fact it’s ‘art’ is the quality that makes it marketable, but once it’s mass marketed, it looses its original artistic quality. I recently blogged (twice) about the idea of creativity vs. innovation. I may be completely off in my reasoning, but I don’t believe humans are capable of true ‘creativity.’ We innovate. For example, my daughters make me some of the most ‘original’ arts and crafts that money can buy. But they’re not original ideas. They’re innovative spins on existing ideas. But they’re so unique that they’re art. At least to me they are.

    Again, nice thought-provoking post. Kudos.

  3. cobweb says:

    I love the phrase, “Craft is about the object. Art is about the idea.” I must have droned on for pages and not boiled it down to this…which is a shame really, because that’s what I always intended to say!

    Glad I found your Blog.


  4. Very nice post! Learned something…

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