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  • James Stewart

The Craft v Art Debate

The image below is a hand woven tapestry by master weaver Caron Penney, the design is a 2014 painting called "Tirra Lirra" by Gillian Ayres. It was commissioned, in an edition of three, by the Campaign for Wool in 2014 in conjunction with Alan Cristea, Gillian Ayres' gallery on Cork Street who are showing a solo exhibition of Ayres's paintings and prints this May.

Then original painting Tirra Lirra was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2014, and the hand woven tapestry Tirra Lirra was exhibited at the UK's premier craft event, Collect 2015 at Saatchi Gallery, Kings Road London also this May.


Traditionally, craft is defined as something that is made with a function in mind. Good craft generally also has good design (look and feel) as well as being suitable for the purpose it was made. 

Sometimes it can be the material used that categorises the work. Glass, ceramics, wood and textiles tend (but not exclusively) to be craft. Also, craft pieces tend to follow a specific design and so can easily be repeated (although this could also be argued for fine art prints).


One possible definition of art is that the maker "expresses" something (e.g. a place, person/s, an idea, concept or an emotion) in the work. In this case expression replaces function in the piece created. Renaissance Art expressed a religious message, perhaps placing a rich family closer to god and now with contemporary art the expression can take many possible forms depending on the genre (figurative, abstract etc).

Art is evocative and can inspire emotion or memory in the eye of the beholder. Art can also be provocative setting off debate and even controversy over subject matter or materials used.

Fine art is often assumed to be two-dimensional (paintings and original prints) and some times three-dimensional in the case of sculpture.

Blurred Lines

If craft is the skill or ability to make something, then an artist needs to be good at his/her craft (e.g. painting or sculpture) to create a finished piece.

Indeed in the days of da Vinci and Michelangelo artist started as apprentices to Masters, performing menial tasks and learning their craft. It was only when an apprentice became a master that he could open his own studio and then take on apprentices of his own.

Conversely, a craft maker may use surface decoration (e.g. on a piece of John Leach studio pottery) to express  or convey a further dimension in the finished object.

Perhaps a good analogy for the distinction in art and craft is philosophy and engineering: art may use craft to express their subject/composition/message whereas craft makers are at the more mechanical end of the creative process their skill lies in the making/function/design of the piece.

Is a distinction needed?

With the lines today being blurred and the advent of important craft fairs (e.g. Collect at the Saatchi Gallery, London) do we even need to put works in these, possibly outdated categories?

Some place "art" on a higher level above "craft", others consider this mere snobbishness or elitism. Both are equally relevant and valued in various, and occasionally

Overlapping circles 

Both artists and craft makers today need to have a high level of creativity (uniqueness) and skill to manipulate materials (paint, clay, metal, wood or other) to convey aesthetic values in the final piece.

Maybe craft is how something is made and art is in the work - this is the Duchampian concept of everything and anything having the potential to be art, even "found objects" with little or no further adornment by the artist: All that is required is for the artist to declare a piece as "Art".

At the Zimmer Stewart Gallery we exhibit both art and craft, without any greater weight put on one more than the other. Tirral Lirra by Gillian Ayres, woven by Caron Penney is a case in point.

What are your thoughts on the Craft vs Art debate? I would be interested in hearing your views...........


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