Craft versus Art

Craft versus Art

I have been puzzling over these distinctions for sometime. But just of late three events have brought these issues to my attention once again. The reason for my interest was raised because when I first started at university and was drawn to the ceramic workshop the programme leader we had at the time had said something along the lines: ‘pottery is not an art form’. I remember feeling somewhat surprised and even slightly outraged. I had seen shows at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that completely belied that statement. And since then I’ve somehow found myself frequently confronted by discussions on the subject. For instance. I went to see a show by the artist Ruby Sterling at MAD (Museum of Art and Design).

At the entrance of the show, in bold letters was this:


The sentence that most intrigues me from this is:”Some (artists) make their work in explicit relationship to craft histories, some employ craft methodologies to investigate the politics of material culture, and some focus on material and formal experimentation, adopting craft conventions into the process. “

The latter is of immense importance. I believe my former tutor mistook the idea of the process ie pots made on the wheel, or children’s playfulness with clay, or the utilitarian uses of ceramics with what has become an avalanche of innovative, experimental and inventive use of clay.

Here is an example of Ruby Sterlings’ work. The joy in his use of material and colour are palpable.


Although the methodology can come from ancient traditions the ways in which it has been utilised and applied has never been more exciting. And naturally this does not only apply to the field of ceramics alone.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the current show at Tate Modern of the work of Anni Albers. Albers has taken what is possibly the most utilitarian of all crafts, weaving, and turned it into a pictorial wonderland. To quote once again:


Once again we have the idea of traditional methodology being applied to artistic endeavours of  the 20th century. Here are some examples of this enthralling work. Interestingly in both cases the artists have found inspiration in the work of an ancient people. Sterling in the work of North American indigenous people and Albers in ancient Peruvian textiles.



My last example comes from the recent exhibition at Chelsea Space ‘The Democratic Dish: Mintons Secessionist Ware’. The Democratic Dish is an intriguing title – somewhere implied in it, horror of horrors, is the idea of mass production and Craft!

‘The factory-produced Secessionist Ware both exemplified the idea of applying art to industry and brought the concept of Art Pottery to a mass market’. At the centre of this debate in British art is the artist Grayson Perry, who supported the exhibition. His advocacy of accessibility to art for everyone today compliments the aspiration of the designer of Secessionist Ware, John W. Wadsworth, over a 100 years ago.
To quote Perry again: in his introduction to his 2017 Serpentine Gallery exhibition ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever’, he explained his idea of the title: ‘it chimed with one of my ongoing ambitions – to widen the audience for art without dumbing it down’. Precisely what the Mintons designers/artists(?) aimed at and succeeded in doing.
This standpoint continues to be supported by artists, curators and critics today.
Roberta Smith writing in ‘Stoking earth into Art, Crucible of Creativity’, the New York times, 10 March 2009:
‘It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers or artisans’