What is “Craft” vs “Art”

(I have ruminated upon this before and probably will again…)

Ars longa, Vita brevis

This saying was ancient when St Francis of Assisi wrote it down.

Ὁ βίος βραχύς,ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή,ὁ δὲ καιρὸς ὀξύς,ἡ δὲ πεῖρα σφαλερή,ἡ δὲ κρίσις χαλεπή.

Was written by Hippocrates,

it starts:

life is short and art takes time, this was translated to latin as:

Vīta brevis,ars longa,occāsiō praeceps,experīmentum perīculōsum,iūdicium difficile.

and in English:

Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgment difficult.

and Chaucer used it as:

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne

which Gustav Stickley used as his motto in all of his advertising.

Ars or art until Chaucer changes it to craft…

Before these words were divided, they meant the same thing. Craft or art was the knowing of how to do things.

Some time between 1066 and now:

Art became painting, sculpture, and Grand Architecture.

Craft became knitting, weaving, house building, furniture making, boatbuilding, basket weaving, rope making and making things from rope, farming, fishing, and essentially everything else that people did and made.

I blame it on the Norman invasion.

but whatever the cause of the rift in definitions,

Art is display of wealth and power,

Craft is display of skill in making ordinary things.

And then our language (or society) inserts or reinserts ambiguity, by calling the most excellent craftsmen: “artists”, and sometimes even calling an artist, a craftsman.

my mind, my core, my soul if you will, wants a disambiguation of this. and yet it doesn’t.

There are craftsmen who look down on artists because they do not do the same thing twice, are not able to do a thing twice. they think the artist is all imagination and no skill.

There are artists who look down on craftsmen because the craftsmen keep making the same thing over and over and over… they think a craftsman is all skill and no imagination.

A few artists hit on something that grabs all of their focus, so they try it again, and again, each time reaching for something they haven’t quite achieved yet… and they slowly become craftsmen.

Some craftsmen after years of doing a thing start to see other possibilities in their forms and start modifying what they do to make them better to reach towards what their imaginations sees, improved lines and flow of spaces… and they slowly become artists.


questions like “was Michelangelo an artist or a craftsman” do not arise. Artists of that era spent years practising by copying the same figure over and over (think of the market for concrete figures today, and the sales of pictures in frames at Walmart) for sale to the public. Thus he was trained like a craftsman, but, by his use of shading, composition, and superposition surpassed most of his contemporaries and landed him contracts that allowed him to show those skills at their best.. so he was an artist… and a craftsman.

Painting and sculpture and all of the “arts” used to be taught more like crafts are taught today. Guilds controlled training that would take years (decades) of learning techniques and copying things to be sold for public consumption. Some of the famous Painters had studios with dozens of apprentices doing the same painting over and over. Those were sold cheap to keep the doors open. Some of those apprentices became famous painters themselves, and some did not.

Today you don’t need a degree or training to call yourself a Painter or a Sculptor. It might help you learn a few techniques and make contacts to go to school or to apprentice. Nor is any training required to call yourself a Craftsman.

Yet even today crafts are not taught as they were, craft schools are few and far between. you get a smattering of introductions to several crafts. And a pat on the head. And the privilege of saying you went to this or that craft school. Then you are out on your own to do the 10 to 15 years of repetition it takes to really “Become”.

Apprenticeships are nearly nonexistent and most trade schools focus on plumbing and electrical work. I’m not saying a trade isn’t a craft, it is a craft. But not all of us are cracked up for working as tradesmen.

Carpentry is also craft (no one is teaching it), as is Pottery. Pottery is/(might also be) an art… every college that has an art dept. has pottery classes.

be well


(Wikipedia was used as a reference for this post)

One response to “What is “Craft” vs “Art””

  1. I have had the same sort of issues with these terms. I have chosen to be called artisan if anything but basically think of myself as a craftsman. My main outlet is doing mid 18th century reenactment as an itinerant rural woodworker, unindentured. This has allowed me a lot of latitude in my work. I do not do reproduction pieces as much as I reproduce the methods of working. Many times I have been referred to as an artist or that my work is real art. My response is that in the time I represent what I do is simply what was expected of someone who wanted to make a living. Work of less quality would soon put one in a very bad way financially and socially. I explain that even though the methods and quality of my work might seem extraordinary these days, there was a time when it was not such a big deal. So, I am a craftsman making useful wooden domestic implements trying to fill the needs of regular folks. After all, most would not stick a piece of Rodin in a pot of stew.

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