As a tapestry needlepoint artist I have had the craft versus art question raised. Am I an artist? Or am I a craftsperson? This dualism has shaped the way my work is viewed, and I find the topic fascinating.
Sally Markowitz, an American Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University, in The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1994, identifies that part of the problem with distinguishing art from craft is that art tends to have more positive connotations in the wider cultural community than craft, stemming from western culture’s elitist values: what white European men make is considered to be ‘art’, whilst what everyone else makes counts only as ‘craft’.
Apart from the elitist connotations association with social status attached to art and not usually to craft, there are also the aesthetic criterion for art. Broadly speaking, art tends to be fined by an object that possesses special aesthetic character, be it beauty, its evocativeness, its visual controversy, or its visual representation of some other idea. It is common to think that art is something with which the maker intends to make a statement, or to evoke an aesthetic response. Craft, on the other hand, is more likely to be defined by objects that have some utilitarian function rather than aesthetic value.
There are some clear examples that most of us are familiar with: painting, drawing, prints are defined as art; sculpture, textiles, hand-made furniture and embroidery are considered craft. These have historic origins and are widely held perceptions when considering the art-craft distinction.
Take someone who purchases a needlepoint kit and follows instructions to create a cushion cover or picture. By aforementioned definitions, this tapestry may be considered to be craft if used as a cushion cover, or art if hung on the wall. In my view, the real distinction in this case lies in the process of how the work was created and the intention of its making. If the maker follows instruction in order to make the piece, they are engaging in craft-making. If the work is original, and its making requires decisions relating to design, colour, composition and materials, I believe this is art. In addition, if the maker of the work is intending to inspire aesthetic response, to evoke discussion or to communicate an idea beyond the work itself, I believe this is art.
Therefore, we must dismiss our distinction between art and craft on its aesthetic criterion alone, and also consider the purpose of the maker in creating the piece. Markowitz references the late philosopher Arthur Danto, who suggests that what makes something an artwork is its semantic character: the possibility and necessity of interpreting the work, of offering a theory as to what it is about, what the subject is.
Tapestry, needlepoint and embroidery is usually classified as craft, even though its products are often representational or so call for an interpretation. This suggests that lack of semantic character is not the only thing that stops us from counting crafts as arts, as Markowitz also acknowledges. She reminds us that for the past three centuries or so, the representational capacities of embroidery have traditionally been used to encourage girls and women display a domestic and submissive feminine character. These conditions are not conducive to individual expression, unless one can bring one’s individuality into their making of them. Therefore, if women’s work is perceived to be unworthy of the interpretative attention accorded to ‘works of art’, it is no wonder that embroidery doesn’t receive it.
All in all, I view my practice as art, yet my art has come about my the refinement of a technical skill. By using a traditional craft technique, I create works that are intended to not only have aesthetic value, but also challenge perceptions, encourage debate and make statements. At the same time, because I design prescribed needlepoint needlepoint patterns for others to stitch, this arm of by practice is craft.
I’d welcome your views on these distinctions between art and craft. Have a look at some of my works here and decide for yourself.
Sally J. Markowitz
The Journal of Aesthetic Education
Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 55-70