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Tate Debate: When is a craft an art?

By Kirstie Beaven

13 October 2011

The debate about the crossover of art and craft feels like it’s having a resurgence at the moment.

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The V&A and the Crafts Council have a joint exhibition celebrating contemporary craft, The Power of Making; artist Grayson Perry has just curated a show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman; and Tacita Dean’s FILM for this year’s Unilever Series engages directly with the tactile skills and crafts of making moving images through film.

Tacita Dean FILM 2011

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It’s not a new question, the boundaries between craft and art have long been contested. But with the explosion of interest in craft, from the Make Do and Mend craze, the new cool of the Women’s Institute and graffiti knitting to artists’ (such as Ai Weiwei) connection with traditional skills and Richard Sennet’s collection of essays The Craftsmangaining interest and coverage, it seems to be the time to talk about it.

So what defines an artist or a craft maker, or even divides an artist from a craft maker?

Perhaps intention makes the distinction. If a maker intends to express something perhaps that makes it art.

However, I asked a few makers at a contemporary craft fair last week, and theyoften felt that it was the material they worked with that made it craft – textiles, ceramics, glass seem to fall into the craft category, never mind if their intention as maker might be an artistic one.

Perhaps it’s how a maker learnt their skill. As an apprentice coming through a process of learning a skill, hand to hand, as it were? That’s craft. As a fully formed genius honing an expressive talent? That’s art.

Perhaps it’s use. Something wearable or useable – jewellery or furniture for example – seems to fit neatly under the craft label, while something that has no clear practical purpose might be called art. However, this doesn’t take into account the decorative crafts, nor the artists who produce practical items.

So what do you think? When is a maker an artist? And what makes a craft an art?

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