Arts and Crafts: What’s the Difference?

Creative things you make with your hands generally get divided into two categories: arts and crafts. But what makes one category different from the other? It’s not always easy to tell, especially if you’re talking definitions. The lines begin to blur and in regard to most kinds of productions, the definition is in the eye of the beholder.

Some separate arts and crafts by type. Paintings and sculpture are art. Crochet and creating chainsaw sculptures are crafts. Baking, which is creative and done with the hands, doesn’t fall into either category unless you’re talking about the cakes you see on Food Network competitions. But food is ephemeral, so let’s focus on the kinds of work that last.

And arts and crafts are work. Make no mistake about that. They can be one’s hobbies, part-time occupations, or livelihood, but both arts and crafts require skill, practice, mindfulness, sensibility, and attention. That’s reflected in the phrase “a work of art.”

But to what efforts do we apply the term “art”? And what is “merely” a craft?

Kits and Patterns. First, the kinds of work that come in kits and with patterns are considered crafts. This includes everything from paint-by-numbers kits to bedazzlers to sewing. But wait a moment. Don’t clothing designers elevate their work from craft to art? In the main, those who design haute couture don’t use patterns. They invent, using only their own imaginations. Knitting and crocheting usually require patterns and are not considered art by most. Most home-made clothing likewise involves patterns. So perhaps one of the criteria for art is that it comes only from the artist’s imagination.

Beauty. This is a tough one since, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But famous paintings that are unquestionably art aren’t always beautiful. Sometimes they’re disturbing or make us uncomfortable. Picasso’s Guernica is an artistic masterpiece. It is also a depiction of the horrors of war. Whatever it is, it’s not classically beautiful.

Nor does beauty by itself make a work of art. The paintings that people hang over their sofas depict beautiful scenes, but professional artists and art critics scorn them. Paintings of sad clowns or large-eyed puppies are classed as kitsch or dreck. They may be technically well done or pleasing to the eye, but they are not Art with a capital A.

Age. Art, perhaps, is something that stands the test of time. But if we limit art to the Old Masters, we deny that young artists create meaningful works. It’s a bit like poetry – no one values it unless you’re dead, preferably by suicide, or best-selling like Helen Steiner Rice.

Age, however, can elevate crafts from the mundane into art. A sampler stitched today is virtually worthless, but one made before, say, 1774 is a precious artifact. With most art, the older the better. The decorations on Egyptian tomb goods or the beading on native clothing are museum-worthy if only because they are old enough.

Location. And while we’re talking about museums, let’s talk about location, location, location. To many the distinction goes like this: Art is what you see in a museum. Crafts are what you find at a local outdoor festival or hanging on the walls of a restaurant. They are created by someone you know or at least could get to know. Distance in both time and location seem to make a difference in whether a piece of work is art or not.

There are gray areas, of course, and these are generally called “artisanal.” If a potter has a shop and sells hand-made vases and dinnerware, if a person who makes jewelry from semi-precious stones instead of diamonds has a shop, the general feeling is that they are more than crafters but less than artists, however lovely their creations.

Price. This is a no-brainer. If it sells for thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars it is art. If you buy it online or spend less than $250 on it, it’s not. There are gorgeous quilts hand-sewn every day that look like works of art, but they do not sell for the same prices as for a Van Gogh. We pay for perceived value.

Rarity/Collectibility. And this is how the perceived value is calculated. If there is only a limited number of an item, like Imperial Fabergé eggs (50 were made), their worth and claim to the title of art skyrocket. Of course, this distinction does not hold true for everything. There are models of Hot Wheels cars, Beanie Babies, and Star Wars figures that are quite rare, but no one considers these art.

Personally, I love art, but in many ways I prefer crafts. Blown glass, stained glass, needlework, carvings, calligraphy, and framed prints decorate our home. When I wear jewelry, it’s going to be amber or malachite or amethyst. I think of them as little pieces of art that anyone can own.


5 thoughts on “Arts and Crafts: What’s the Difference?

  1. You can always open another can of worms and look at the decorative/functional standard of determining crafts vs. arts. I like it because it mostly avoids the arrogance of “That’s *just* a craft, not art,” and because it doesn’t relegate entire forms to a single category. It’s much more a work-by-work thing. It also largely removes the issue of things traditionally done by women not being considered art…until men do them. Maybe best of all, it recognizes that blending the two is very possible. (Someone does some embroidery on a dish towel. That embroidery adds nothing to the functionality of the towel; it’s there solely to make it more pleasing to the eye, though it is still a towel. Art, craft, or some space where both exist? And what if the same person also sewed the towel itself?)

    The basic “rule” is that if something is made to be decorative, it’s a work of art; if it’s made to perform a function, it’s a craftspiece. Ceramic coffee mug: craft. Ceramic sculpture: art. Macrame plant hanger: craft. Macrame wall hanging: art.

    It’s obviously imperfect. It works best for visual arts/crafts, and doesn’t work well at all for things like music and writing. There’s also plenty of room for debate where the two areas start merging (though debate isn’t automatically a bad thing).

    As an example, it doesn’t relegate everything that’s done according to a pattern to being a craft. The art awareness teacher who taught me about decorative/functional gave this as an example: It is very common practice for students of art to set up in front of a masterwork and duplicate it. Is a beautiful duplicate done this way a craft because it was done by following a pattern? Even if you would happily frame and display the result? If you draw a tree, you follow the pattern of that tree. Is that not art?

    Or take it a step further out. This is counted cross-stitch, which is automatically relegated to “craft” by 99% of other standards. But it’s made by a model-following process, as is the art student’s work, and I even took it into a different medium than the original. If the student’s painting or drawing is art, why not this embroidery?

    (Sorry for the long-windedness. This wakes up my language monster. 🙂 )


  2. Art…”If you buy it on Etsy or spend less than $250 on it, it’s not.” It’s not that I don’t get what you’re (trying) to say here, but it’s points made carelessly, such as this one, that scratches at my senses.

    That sentence is on par with the old attitude of when some men made thoughtless comments like “that’s so easy a woman could do it” – how utterly objectifying, right? We all know better now, it’s the simple, almost subliminal slights and slurs that can lay a foundation for a negative perception to grow. That one little sentence could easily impart that Etsy doesn’t sell art and that real art cannot be found on Etsy.

    You could have inserted “online sites” or something similar but by targeting Etsy you quite irresponsibly crossed the line from generalized discussion to defamation.

    As you may have guessed by this point, yes, I have a shop on Etsy and I label my handmade products as art. I’m responding here for myself and every other ‘artist’ out there with the request that you edit your/this post for content. Thank you.


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