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Marta Churchwell: Art, crafts not that far apart | News

I’m a regular reader of the bimonthly magazine American Craft.

Within its pages, I find images of superlative works in glass, ceramics, wood, weaving and jewelry, among other mediums. Many of the pieces are sold in high-end art galleries. Sometimes the magazine includes the works of such highly regarded artists as Dale Chihuly, known for abstract and organic glass forms that have placed him at the pinnacle of glasswork.

No one would question whether Chihuly creates art. Yet his medium of glasswork is generally classified as a craft. That’s the focus of American Craft magazine. You won’t see images of paintings or fine sculptures on its pages.

It begs the question of what the difference is between art and crafts. Both require skills, precision and imagination, and both have the potential to inspire. So what are the differences?

“Craft is a broad and slippery word,” according to American Craft magazine. “It can dovetail with fine arts.“

The consensus of a variety of sources is that art is about expression of ideas, emotions and aesthetics, while crafts are primarily about function, whether decorative or practical, and they’re made through patterns or routines.

Consider this example. A fashion designer creates for the runway, making distinctive clothing a piece of art. A dressmaker, on the other hand, must create from basic patterns that are altered to size and customer specifications.

A key element in defining the two is that art is difficult to reproduce because it’s an expression of ideas particular to the artist, whereas crafts are more easily reproduced because of their need to meet a function. There can be only so many forms of cups, bowls or baskets without losing their practicality.

Also consider that crafts are frequently produced for their profitability. They must be pumped out quickly because there is a greater demand for crafts than fine art because of their affordability and functionality.

Still, the lines are blurring between art and crafts. Sometimes, they’re incorporated into one another. That’s one of the take-aways from my visit of the 2021 exhibit “Crafting in America” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville, Arkansas. As that exhibit pointed out, the definitions of crafts have changed over time.

According to art.art blog by Katlin Rogers, art and craft in their most basic forms trace back to prehistoric times when simplistic art was created on cave walls and functional objects — tools, bowls or clothing — were created as a means of survival. As societies developed and became more complex, creation of crafts became viewed as a skilled profession, Rogers says.

That became most evident during the Renaissance period from the 1300s to 1600s. During that period, artists began moving away from works devoted only to the church, experimenting instead with styles that allowed personal expression. That shift, Rogers says, led to a division between artists and craftspeople, such as goldsmiths or weavers, who were considered skilled technicians.

Skipping forward to the late 19th century, Rogers and other sources say the Arts and Crafts movement developed as a response to industrialization and the mass production of goods with little value given to artfully crafted works. The movement emphasized the importance of craftsmanship and skill and rejected the idea that art and crafts were separate disciplines, Rogers says.

That separation continued to melt away to today, when artists are increasingly incorporating traditional craft techniques into their work and craftspeople are mixing art into their pieces.

Will crafts ever rise to the respect that fine art earns? Not in the minds of some, particularly graduates of art institutions or pretentious critics. Still, true craftspeople must build their skills just as artists do and, if they’re to compete, they must project their vision, consider aesthetics, and constantly stretch their creativity in new directions, just as artists do. Crafts can be elevated to the level of art when they reach beyond mere functionality.

This is increasingly being proven by the acceptance of crafts into featured exhibits at museums such as Crystal Bridges and other world-class art institutions.

While some art experts prefer to separate the two, much as American Craft magazine does, there will always be others who consider it simply a matter of semantics.

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