The Old Art and Craft Debate

This is an essay I wrote over ten years ago for Turning Points the journal of the wood turning center (now renamed center for wood art) in the USA vol 16 2003.

I think some may find it an interesting read and I am prompted to share it by my friend Jarrod writing about art vs craft on his blog  Anyway this is where my thinking was ten years ago. I’ll add a postscript with my thoughts today.

The old art and craft debate

Several times I have been at conferences listening to what I thought was an interesting point when it has been swept aside by someone saying “oh that’s the old art and craft debate”. I was left with the impression that some time ago within our field there was an interesting perhaps heated debate on the subject, perhaps it had gone on rather too long and the ground had been covered too thoroughly for anyone to feel it was worthwhile revisiting. As I learnt more I gained the impression that clearly the artists had won the debate since most work I see represented at the highest levels today has pretensions to art and there is very little that harks back to old craft values.  I wished that I had been around to see that debate or that at least I could find somewhere a scholarly paper on the subject.


I am still looking for that scholarly paper and as a member of a generation that missed the first debate (if it was ever properly debated) I would like to reopen that can of worms. I would welcome input on the subject from anyone whether they feel that the subject is decided and closed or whether they feel that there is fertile ground for discussion.


let me start by setting out the historical background as far as I have been able to research it and then we can look at some of the interesting hierarchical issues that it raises.


My wife (who is doing an MA in a related subject) and I often have interesting debates as to whether we are at any time involved in an art or craft activity. The words are not clearly defined and their meanings change with time and context. Craft used to have the alternative meaning of crafty as in the craft of the burglar or the thief. Johnson’s English dictionary of 1773 gives craft amongst other things as “fraud, cunning, artifice” No wonder modern makers do not like to be associated with the word. We talk about the arts of cookery, garden design, hairdressing, when I redecorated our home that could be a craft activity though since I painted murals was it raised to art status?


The art that really counts though is not “the art of…” but Art with a capital A. This is what we now call fine art and it is of interest since fine art is of higher status than  the other arts. I had assumed that this differing status had its roots in some objective difference or at least that it was set down in distant antiquity. It seams that neither is the case.


“in classical antiquity and the middle ages the visual arts were regarded as purely imitative occupations in contrast to the speculative and intellectual occupations of the liberal arts (sciences), for which reason a separation of arts and crafts was unknown and in a scale of absolutes the visual arts ranked below the liberal arts.” Crane 1892


It seems that the fine arts as we know them today were separated out and raised to higher status during the eighteenth century, even then and ever since there has been debate over which arts should or shouldn’t be included, at various times painting, architecture, sculpture, music and poetry have been included.


The arts which were not included came to be known as the decorative arts and as Paul Greenhalgh of the V&A Museum points out “The decorative arts were and are disenfranchised art; the arts not fine. They bring two things simultaneously to craft: art and the crisis of being denied the status of art.”


This seems to me to be a salient point, the craftsman was denied the dignity, the status and perhaps less importantly the higher valuation of his wares. He has been trying to regain these things ever since. In the nineteenth century debate raged with many arguing very eloquently that the decorative arts were of equal status to the fine arts John Ruskin said “There is no existing highest-order art but that it is decorative.. Get rid then, at once of any idea of decorative art being degraded or a separate kind of art.”


The other side of the coin was put in a debate in the British Parliament by CR Cockrell in 1846, Paul Greenhalgh sums up his point “In order to be a truly disinterested vehicle of artistic ideas, a genre had to be severed from perceivable use-value.”  This is a very important definition which we shall return to.


This debate continued into the twentieth century Ananda Coomaraswami claimed that an artist was not a special kind of man but that every man was a special kind of artist. In 1940 the sculptor Eric Gill would have liked to revert to an earlier view of art “ The word ‘art’ first of all meant skill, …But though that is the original meaning of the word…we have nowadays completely forgotten it, and have come to think of art as though the word did not mean all human works whatsoever, from drainpipes to cathedrals, from paperweights to statues of saints, from street cries to songs and symphonies….. but only the special works of special people who paint pictures, carve and mould statues, write books and poems and design buildings to be looked at”


Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada arguably started the studio craft movement by getting their pots accepted as “Art” and sold through galleries to collectors. The opening line of Leaches incredibly influential potters book goes “Very few people in this country think of the making of pottery as an art..”

Interestingly though Leach and Hamada would probably struggle to get their functional wares accepted as art in today’s craft world indeed they would probably be looked down upon and considered mere production potters.


The studio craft movement took a major step forward when makers succeeded in severing their work from “perceivable use-value”. A good early example would be Hans Coper’s glorious sculptural vessels, whereas Bernard Leach had claimed that his functional bowls and jugs were worthy of being considered as Art, Coper’s work could be considered as nothing else having left its functional craft roots behind.


At this point I would like to clarify what I see as the differences between Art and Craft. We have already defined Art with a capital A as being the noun referring to fine Art and separated it from the verb “the art of….”. Now I would like to propose separating Craft, the noun from craft the verb. To craft something is to make something with skill, craft skill is involved in a great many activities which are not often today considered as “the Crafts”; cookery, engineering, pattern making, painting, dentistry and sculpture all involve a percentage of craft skill, it is possible to debate that using a computer to design a page of text involves craft skill, certainly its predecessor type setting involved much craft skill. My point is that craft skill is involved in many trades and aspects of daily life to varying degrees.


To define “the Crafts” with a capital C is more difficult. There are of course varying perceptions of what is and isn’t Craft, the general public would have a very different view to a curator dealing with cutting edge work. Historically it seams that the modern idea of “the Crafts” developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. The great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London 1851 contained a great wealth of craftwork yet at that time they were viewed not as something separate but as part of a continuum of production with industrial manufacture at one end of the spectrum and fine art at the other. Rosemary Hill argues that the concept which came into focus 150 years ago as “Craft”  is now dissolving becoming once more invisible. The truth is that making things is a continuum, whilst at a glance the most innovative conceptual work may have little in common with traditional work when it comes to trying to draw a line between the two it is not easy, there are blurred edges. I feel that those crafts in which the traditional and the innovative coexist and exhibit together (such as Basketmaking) are the strongest and healthiest, there is always creative tension but there is also a powerful two way flow of ideas. Traditional work should not be in a state of stasis and innovative work should not throw away its roots.


If we must define Craft one option would be to revert to and invert CR Cockrell’s 1846 position he said that Art is that which had been severed from use value. Craft therefore was that which was still connected to use-value, function was a defining characteristic of Craft. Most contemporary makers and commentators are happy to regard non-functional objects as Craft, I was always confused as to what separated such Craft from Art. Perhaps it was technique, if an object was made using a process traditionally regarded as Craft such as a turned wall piece it was craft whereas a wall piece made as a collage of found objects was Art.


Janet Barnes Director of the British Crafts Council discusses this issue

“What has developed in recent years is work that crosses over the traditional divides of the “art/craft” debate that was essentially medium based; the “if it is ceramic, it must be craft” type of argument. Contemporary art has increasingly stressed the conceptual as against the material leaving ideas of the “art object” free to merge with ideas of the “craft object”.”


The truth is that any object within our field can be looked at from the craft skill angle or from the “disinterested vehicle of artistic ideas” angle, most objects contain elements of both and perhaps we should not try to draw lines but to stay open to meanings from either end of the continuum. Often I feel that makers think that the craft skill end of the spectrum has been exhausted, people will look at a nicely turned bowl and say “we were doing that 30 years ago”, few art school graduates would be encouraged to look for meaning in producing functional objects by hand in the 21st century. Personally I find so much meaning in making an object using simple tools and knowing that that object then takes on a life of its own as it is used to enhance the daily life of its new owner. John Lane Art Editor of Resurgence magazine says “the value of craftwork can be far more than aesthetic; it can give expression to a life-philosophy.” I have passionate views about where our industrialised world is heading and I have a lot to say about it, it happens that I find the best medium for making those statements is, like Gandhi to live a simple life making simple objects by hand. These ideas are not new or innovative but compared to such timeless wisdom much contemporary conceptual art appears banal.


As curator Christopher Tyler said about my own work in the Challenge VI exhibition “This is the heart of the case for craft. The awkward fact that this argument does not change is perhaps the main reason why its appeal tends to fade in a critical context. However, while the essential artefact has not changed in three hundred years , the context for it continues to change, and the subtleties ripen if we care to attend to them.”


I have no doubt that the future of the cutting edge of our field will see more “conceptual art” and less craft skill, I know several makers that prefer to call themselves sculptors and don’t like the old craft connotations of “turner”. It seems to me that many pieces are only popped on the lathe briefly because there is a ready made artworld prepared to acknowledge them whereas there is no such market for small non turned wood sculpture, such a position would seem bizarre in the world of ceramics. I personally would like to see the continuum acknowledged and opened up, my perfect exhibition of 2025 would involve cutting edge conceptual wood sculpture and functional salad bowls because the further we career down our current path of “progress” the more important a message both forms have to give.



Barnes Janet 2001 Creative Culture (resurgence magazine Dec 2001)

Crane Walter 1892 the claims of decorative art

Gill Eric 1940 Christianity and the machine age

Greenhalgh Paul 1997 The history of craft in “the culture of craft” ed Peter Dormer

Hill Rosemary 2001 the eye of the beholder; criticism and the crafts (crafts magazine May 2002)

Leach Bernard 1940 A potters book

Ruskin John 1859 Modern Manufacture and design


Postscript 2013

I guess when I wrote this back in 2003 I was concerned about status, the comparatively lower status of good traditional crafts vs art craft. I worked hard to try to change that situation but eventually realised it was a fruitless mission. I now realise that Buckminster Fuller had it right when he said

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So I no longer worry about when I see friends in the art craft world getting more recognition than friends in the traditional craft world. Instead I am working hard to gain the recognition for the knowledge and skill that is required to make the best traditional work. The truth is that in a world of mass produced objects what we do is very very special, far rarer than conceptual art/craft and we should strive to do the very best we can rather than accept any compromise or try to compete with mass produced work. The new model is on it’s way and in that new model skill, tradition and intangible knowledge will all be valued.



10 Responses to The Old Art and Craft Debate

  1. Jarrod November 22, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    Nice thoughts and thanks for re-posting the older post. I too am interested in the new model. As I see it, we can, do, and should use the word “craft”. We should be proud to be craftsmen and women and encourage the use of the word in this new model. Breathe life into the word, the noun “Craft”. I hope that comes off clear…I have no interest in fighting the current model. But our language and need to use certain words still exists….we should not abandon craft. All good stuff to think about….and talk, share, discuss….thanks Robin.

  2. Steve Hunt November 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks for this Robin. It is an old chestnut, I suppose. But, despite the debate, which is interesting and which, for me, raises all sorts of questions about creativity, design, skill and art…I still feel that if someone has put their hands, their mind and their heart into making something, then it immediately accrues a high value, in itself, as an artifact. If it is both useful and beautiul, then that value should last for a long time. From the point of view of the creator, it will contain something personal, that reflects how engagement with materials and tools have interacted and how skills have been used to control the process. The individual value of a one-off piece of work is enormous, in my opinion.

  3. Tracy December 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Thank you for posting this very interesting piece. I just discovered your site via Lloyd’s blog. Are you familiar with the young and talented Ariele Alasko from Brooklyn, New York? She was trained as a sculptor but has found great satisfaction creating tables from wood lathe she gets from buildings being demolished. She has recently turned to spoonmaking, and has many young fans. I find this renewed interest in crafts and handmade so reassuring for our future…

    • Robin Wood December 28, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks for that I’ll look Ariele up. Lloyd is a huge inspiration, when I grow up I want to be Lloyd Kahn. When I am 70 I might take up skateboarding.

  4. Ben Scott-Pye February 3, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

    Apart from the hard work in chaining off this non-art craft objects, how is the end result of hand making functional craft items any better or worse than a machine making them.

    Traditional craft seems to involve not really having any unique ideas and still aiming to achieve the same thing as a company that mass produces useful objects, which is to make objects that you’re good at making repetitively at as high a volume as possible to make enough money to live and continue with the process.

    My cousin is a ceramicist who makes porcelain slip cast cups, bowls, vases and saucers. Her work has a distinct look which makes it stand out, but since conceptualizing the work at University since then she has just been a manufacturing plant for replicas of that original work for people to buy.

    I think this really exemplifies the difference between art and craft.

    • Robin Wood February 3, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

      Valid points Ben. Some would say that the craft made item will have subtle variation more so than machine made. That all depends on the production process of course. David Pye used to differentiate the workmanship of certainty where the process produced identical results from the workmanship of risk where the makers skill determined the final form. I personally am less interested in that, I care about working conditions and whether the working environment is enjoyable and fulfilling. If I could compare it to food production many people choose to buy artisan cheese and artisan beer made in smaller batches by people that care. In some cases a large creamery can produce excellent cheese but it will always be less variable and less interesting. I care most about the effect food production has on the environment and the people involved in it’s production, I feel exactly the same way about craft production.

      I wonder would you feel that a musician playing the same live tune several times or even for many years was merely reproducing the original concept and therefore not an artist?

  5. Mike Wamhoff March 20, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

    Robin, I think that in your last post you may have focused in on what’s really important in this discussion. In making, we not only create objects, we make ourselves and our community. What do we as individuals want to be, and what kind of world do we want to live in? The process we engage in is at least, if not more important than the work we produce. I’m wondering if maybe that’s the reason for the emphasis on “craft” as a definition, leaving no doubt that what we do is the skilled, handwork transformation of material into useful, easily understood everyday objects, as opposed to the “art” object with it’s infinite possibilities of meaning, symbolism, and interpretation.

    My one objection to your original essay if I understand you correctly, is the idea that there is any pretense in calling what one does “art” if what one makes is primarily a useful object. To concede the term art to what seems to me to be a fairly historically recent narrowing of the concept, is I think, giving too much credence to and or possibly misunderstanding Marcel Duchamp. I don’t think that accepting the conceptual act of “choosing” in the creation of a work of art in any way diminishes other work in the wide range of human creation. I may be stretching my knowledge of art theory a long way here, but maybe there is something Duchampian in the act of choosing to work as a craftsperson making handmade objects (artifacts) in a world where those objects are under appreciated and misunderstood. Maybe that very choice is the work of art. Maybe choosing to do work that is joyful, personally satisfying, and helps build a peaceful, sustainable community makes one an artist. New York and London gallery owners shouldn’t get to redefine our language just to fill their bank accounts. I choose to call myself an artist whether I’m painting an abstract canvas or carving a spoon. Mike

  6. Mike Wamhoff March 20, 2014 at 9:09 pm #

    I just read your post on Duchamp. I’ve always thought he was unfairly maligned as somehow an accomplice in the decline into self-aggrandizement and big money celebrity in the art world of the 50’s and 60’s, but his dadaist provocation still appeals to me. I don’t think it’s ever as simple as just an easy redefinition. We all make our compromises to raise families and pay the bills while trying to maintain some integrity in the work we do. I just think that the attempt to be too pure in how we define ourselves risks setting up a new and unnecessary hierarchy. Mike


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