Art or Craft?

Before weighing the significance of art against that of craft it is important to discriminate between these two terms, difficult to isolate the meaning of one term from another. One method is to look at the definitions of the words themselves. According to the Oxford dictionary, art is defined as:

  1. 1) The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, especially through a visual medium such as painting or sculpture.
  2. 2) The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
  3. 3) Subjects of study primarily concerned with human culture (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects).
  4. 4) A skill in a specified thing. (Soanes and Stevenson, 2006 p.73)

Whereas craft is defined as:

  1. 1) An activity involving skill in making things by hand.
  2. 2) Skill in carrying out one’s work. (Soanes and Stevenson, 2006 p.333)

These definitions demonstrate a vague resemblance between the terms, which in itself also highlights the historic link between the two. Art itself is generally ill defined, and introduces the problem of what to define as art? In addition to this, Batteux argues that craft has itself been presented as a constituent of art (1746 p.IX). This does not help discriminate one term from another, so for the purpose of this essay the distinction between arts and craft will be that art utilizes a concept, whereas craft is the abstract application of technique. Now that these terms have been separated their importance relative to one another can be argued.

Concept in art has changed dramatically since the start of the twentieth century, and has increasingly become an integral part of art, to the extent that in contemporary art the terms are practically synonymous. Subsequently most of the key works that influence contemporary art most strongly, are conceptual pieces. An iconic work in the development of conceptual art is Duchamp’s (1887-1968) Fountain (1917). Naumann and Kuenzli argues that the idea of a concept has been a part of art since the Renaissance, and that conceptual art like Fountain is merely a natural extension of this (1989 p.32).  However, while a conceptual icon, Fountain can also be argued to employ craft to create the required aesthetic; although the visual image of the toilet could be considered visually interesting, it is the idea behind putting it there that it the most striking characteristic of the work. The development of concept within art is not a new idea, and has maintained a symbiotic relationship with art throughout history, with many pieces utilizing concepts to illustrate ideas and messages. The difference here is that the concept is hidden within the art, and used to supplement the aesthetic; while in conceptual art, the concept is the art.

According to Kant, aesthetic interest does not come about through functional and practical concern, and therefore art does not need to serve a purpose (1781 p.83). This view is exemplified in readymade art. Kant also states beauty is not an attribute belonging to a piece of art or the beautiful aspects of nature; but is instead an awareness of the pleasure which attends the ‘free play’ of the imagination and the understanding (1781 p.83). This statement demonstrates the subjective qualities of art, which present the problem with varying opinion, and the problems with appreciation of subjective views, which cause difficulties as it implies dominance of certain views without requiring fact for justification. This is important to the discussion of art versus craft because is highlights the problem of judging one against the other using only speculation, and opinion as basis for merit. Some works of art, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s (1925) Portrait of Galerie Iris Clert (1961) demonstrates an artistic concept of wholly removing craft from the art. This work developed conceptual art, as it is a work defined by the creator, not the observer; thus, shifting the values placed upon an artist in relation to a consumer.

Because artistic value is held within an idea, it can be argued that conceptual art can be mass-produced on a large scale without losing artistic value. While examples of mass production can be found with both concept and technique based art, mass production is more evident in conceptual art because the time spent by the artist is taken up with creating ideas; once an idea is formed, it can be reproduced quickly with little extra artistic input. However, with craft based art, the time spent by the artist applying refined techniques will need to be repeated for each subsequent reproduction. Examples of such mass produced conceptual art can be seen with Damien Hirst’s (b.1965) Spot Paintings, which employed staff to implement Hirst’s ideas, without any further impetus from the artist. This is practice is supported the quote “the artist is seen like a producer of commodities, like a factory that turns out refrigerators” (Lewitt, 1977).

Conceptual art’s relationship with the public is unusual, with a noticeable divide in popular opinion, with strong feelings both for and against it. An example of the negative view can be seen in the flippant statement “For many, art galleries are places where stains, largely rectangular, hang on walls.” (Lyas, 1997 p.5) which uses the word stain to reference paintings derogatorily, indicating a dissatisfaction with contemporary art, and in particular is sociological environment.  This highlights the negative feelings some art viewers may hold about contemporary art.

The use of concept is not restricted to a high art culture; the increasing popularism and value found with graffiti artists, which often utilize both aesthetic and concept in works. An example of this is the popularity of graffiti artist Bansky (1974), which often focuses upon ideas, messages and the ironic use of existing material rather than relying on aesthetic alone to create interest.

While concept is important, it does not diminish the enjoyment people get from art that employs craft alone. Examples of such art can include music from both commercial pop and dance. People congregate to listen to such music in great numbers; “their ears are constantly stimulated by music; they dance with astonishing rhythm and dynamism; they are saturated with the narrative drama of the screen” (Lyas, 1997 p.4) which demonstrates enjoyment of craft as perceived in popular culture.  Some contemporary art heavily utilizing craft can be seen as a historic link to antiquated customs, continuing traditional practices without attempting to improve upon them.

The necessity for craft to present images has been diminished in modern times because of improvements in technology. An early use of art was to capture time, whether actual such as portraits, or fictitious like imaginary incidents. With new equipment like the camera, it became possible to capture and store moments in time, rendering the function of this type of craftsman obsolete. This produced the new art forms; photography and film. This development questions the need for the archaic craft of painting to contemporary society, as many of its uses have been superseded by other art forms. As such this also questions the relevance of craft for craft’s sake.

One reaction to the widespread acceptance of conceptual art, and its promotion by institutions like the Turner Prize was the Stuckist Art Movement. This group was formed from a group of people who shared contempt for the values held by many of the leading conceptual artists of the time; they criticize conceptual art, as well as post modernity in general.

“Punk, especially in its more extreme, non-commercial varieties, has a reputation for being bad music par excellence: a music that seems to go out of its way to be terrible, offensive, unlistenable” (Rodel, 2004 p.235) This type of music emphasizes the utilization of both craft and artistic concept, as the crafted aesthetic of a harsh and callous soundworld comes about from an artistic decision to create a musical response to their opinions on society as a whole. There are many examples where such a soundworld has been imitated in new work, and used out of context as reference to the original concept. Likewise, this soundworld has been used superficially because of its striking sound and used purely for its aural appeal without any significant attachment to concept. While such artistic concept requires application of specific techniques (or inherent lack of) to implement, it is the philosophical rebellion that is most characteristic of this type of music and as such would emphasize the importance of art over that of craft.

One problem with utilizing craft by itself is that without new ideas, existing forms can be oversaturated and art becomes merely a restatement of existing art. The statement “Bad music is everywhere! Just hit the scan button on your radio while driving down any highway in any state and listen to the constant regurgitating drone of the same formulaic pop song,” (Washburne and Derno, 2004 p.1) demonstrates this problem of the application of craft alone, and highlights the lack of ingenuity present when ideas are removed from the compositional process.  The application of craft in isolation as seen in such instances, often shows the restatement of a single aesthetic in excess until all musical potential has been extracted from the music and the music stripped. This oversaturation of similar music could be considered ironic when contrasted to the way in which some craft based music is presented; pop music is continually diminishing in length to prevent boredom, requiring little concentration in order to fully appreciate.

Salvador Dali’s (1904-1989) The Persistence of Memory (1931) is a good example of craft based art being used to convey a concept; this piece demonstrates the relative concept of the passing of time, which is represented by objects without the ability to track the passing of time. This view is shared by Blesser and Salter (2007), who state that here it is an idea that constitutes the art, and the concept is important, and less of the focus is placed upon the craft involved with the painting of the work and the technical ability Dali employed. From a visual perspective, the phrase “The pleasure buttons are the content of the illusions” (Pinker, 1997 p.526) is used to describe how it is the subject of visual art that evokes emotion, and not the medium in which the subject is portrayed that is most relevant. This observation on conventional art translates equally to conceptual art, for example; the skill involved in conceiving the geometry and design utilized many readyminade sculptures may promote visual interest, but less striking than the visual aesthetic is the use of concept; in this case the use of such found object.

As the previous statements imply, both art and craft are important, and each have their own characteristic merits. In general however, concept can be seen as more relevant to contemporary art than craft. While historically craft can be seen as the governing artistic power, the advancement of technology has surpassed the need for craft in some of the traditional arts; which has facilitated a shift in values advantaging concept. The view that art is more important than craft can also be seen in the major artistic bodies, with significant institutions like the Turner Prize demonstrating the value of art. While this is shown primarily through financial caché, the money is intrinsically linked to the artistic merits of art, as the use of money to evaluate the worth of art in these circumstances is merely intermediary. While there are some art groups like the Stuckists who argue the merits of craft; the importance of concept throughout the twentieth century is clearly evident, and it has influenced much of the produced art since. Indeed, the very fact that the Stuckists exist demonstrates the widespread acceptance of the relative importance of concept against that of craft; and places conceptual art in a position of authority over craft based art within modern society. This ultimately means that to today’s artistic community, concept is more important than craft.


Batteux, C. (1746) Les Beaux Arts, Paris: Durand.

Birchler, C., Burkholder, J. and Giger, A. (2003) Musical Borrowing, 4June, [Online], Available: [3 January 2010].

Blesser, B. and Salter, L. (2007) Spaces speak, are you listening?, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Kant, I. (n.d) Critique of Pure Reason.

Keats, J. (1818) Endymion, London: Taylor and Hessey.

Lyas, C. (1997) Aesthetics, London: University College London Press.

Naumann, F. and Kuenzli, R. (1989) Marcel Duchamp, Mitchegan: MIT Press.

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works, New York: Norton.

Rodel, A. (2004) ‘Extreme Noise Terror’, Bad Music.

Soanes, C. and Stevenson, A. (ed.) (2006) Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition, Oxford: University Press.

Washburne, C. and Derno, M. (2004) Bad Music, New York: Routledge.