Artist, Artisan & Craftsperson

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Reader Matt Pelto is working on a paper for his college rhetoric class and is trying to define the terms: artist, artisan and craftsperson.

He interviewed Roy Underhill and Peter Ross to get their thoughts and has written up a draft paper that you can download using the link below.

Artistry and craftsmanship

Matt asked if I would post the following question here on our blog so he could get some other opinions. Here’s Matt’s question:

What is the single defining quality that separates each title: “artist,” “artisan” and “craftsperson,” from the other two? Are the terms mutually exclusive or can more than one apply at the same time? And what are the implications of these titles; i.e. does your title affect how you work or the quality of the work?

Also, Matt welcomes any feedback on his essay. You can send your comments to Matt here or post them in a comment below.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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36 Responses to Artist, Artisan & Craftsperson

  1. Thomas Scott says:

    Hey Chris,

    I like the time worn distinctions, even if they are a bit simplistic.
    “A craftsman works with his hands, an artisan works with his head and his hands, and an artist works with his heart, his head and his hands.”
    I don’t know who said it first.

    Tom

    • tsstahl says:

      Agreed. The terms are not at all mutually exclusive unless referring to a general class of people.

      An artisan is a designer, skilled at bringing the laypersons dream/vision to life.

      The artist stretches the bounds of what is known and what is possible.

      At some shallow point the line between artist and artisan is blurred. The guy who does the solid wavy tables and chairs (can’t remember his name for the life of me right now) is a perfect example of an artisan and artist under the same hat.

      My surefire method of telling the difference is to ask the person directly.

  2. mctoons555 says:

    I think that freedom from the constraints of function sort of defines the separation between those terms for me, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive in that each of them can be utilized during the application of the other.

    • mctoons555 says:

      I think how a title affects your work is based on how honor bound you feel to the constraints you have accepted or placed upon yourself regarding what you are working on.

  3. petevdl says:

    Very cool paper, good job!

  4. Heavy! The link Matt seems broke so here’s my two cents.
    Craftsman is bread and butter. Skilled and able to complete work to a high standard. Knows the job inside out and is a master of his tools. Repeating well practiced and understood methods. Kind of a bench joiner?
    Artisan has a more expression and creativity. More sought after for making structures beautiful or making unique furniture, adding unique flair as well as being a master of his tools.
    Artist expresses things through any medium or material and has few constraints. Their aim is to provoke and stimulate deeper thought and reaction through the work they create.

  5. hoppsj says:

    To me, the distinction between the three is a matter of scale, with the artist being focused on uniqueness and improvisation in one-offs of a particular form, while the artisan places more focus on being able to produce their work on a larger, but still relatively small scale available to an informed few. The craftsperson is involved when production reaches a larger scale, but the process still requires skilled workers to maintain the integrity of the item.

  6. 2u55 says:

    Be careful with Artist and tread lightly when defining what Art “is” or where it comes from, where it’s going or where it has been. Art, that is Contemporary Art, is an inherently slippery beast when it comes to a solid definition and the waters get even more murky with the assumption that Art comes from an Artist. Just be aware that long ago Art ceased to be about creativity and became more about being cleaver – ask Duchamp, Warhol, Koons, Hirst, etc. (if you really want to get krazy add a dash of Baudrillard to that mix).

    Best to remove the Art from Artistry in this equation – maybe try x-istry.

    For a spot-on contemporary view of what an Art is (and by extension what an Artist is) try Hennessy Youngman:

    p.s. I understand that there will be many woodworkers, “artist”, craft-persons, etc. who will try and defend their position as makers of Art – to these people I say: the battle for the title of Art has already been lost, the war is long over, I am but the messenger, please do not shoot.

  7. jonathanszczepanski says:

    I think there are four different types of people that create things: artists, artisans, craftsman, tradesman.

    There are many elements that go into the purpose of the creator’s objects. While the best of each type of people that create things have can be high in each element, it’s not necessary:
    creator’s emotion
    audience’s emotion
    creator’s aesthetics
    audience’s aesthetics
    pre-existing requirements
    skill required
    efficiency
    money

    An artist creates something for his own emotional or mental expression or release, or to evoke an emotional or mental expression or release from their audience. The object stands on it’s own:
    creator’s emotion = very high or very low (the artist might not care about his own emotions, but only about the audience’s)
    audience’s emotion = very high or very low (the artist might not care about his audience’s emotions, but only his own)
    creator’s aesthetics = very high
    audience’s aesthetics = very low
    pre-existing requirements = very low
    skill required = low
    efficiency = very low
    money = very low

    An artisan creates an object that generates emotional or mental expression or release, or to evoke an emotional or mental expression or release from their audience, but the object’s everyday usefulness is still a consideration. The object stands on it’s own, but it’s surroundings may be considered:
    creator’s emotion = high or low (the artisan might not care about his own emotions, but only about the audience’s)
    audience’s emotion = high or low (the artisan might not care about his audience’s emotions, but only his own)
    creator’s aesthetics = very high
    audience’s aesthetics = medium
    pre-existing requirements = low
    skill required = very high
    efficiency = very low
    money = medium

    A craftsman creates an object with a specific purpose or use. The object mostly works or is viewed in conjunction with other objects or it’s environment, but may also stand on it’s own:
    creator’s emotion = low
    audience’s emotion = low
    creator’s aesthetics = medium
    audience’s aesthetics = very high
    pre-existing requirements = high
    skill required = very high
    efficiency = medium
    money = high

    A tradesman creates an object that is one piece of a whole. The object does not stand on it’s own:
    creator’s emotion = very low
    audience’s emotion = very low
    creator’s aesthetics = low
    audience’s aesthetics = low
    pre-existing requirements = very high
    skill = medium
    efficiency = high
    money = very high

    … not that I have thought about it at all. :-) This is from a post I made on a similar thread over at WoodTalk Online:

    http://www.woodtalkonline.com/topic/7228-professional-woodworker-or-artist/

  8. Liam Jacques says:

    Don’t you need to be dead to be accepted as an artist? Or perhaps a master of self promotion like Dali and Warhol. All kidding aside, I think most of the replies have it right, Artists are there to provoke you to think or feel in any way shape or form. If your reaction is positive or negative it makes no difference. The object is to get a reaction from the beholder.
    Artisans are masters of their craft and able to design pleasing objects that the public would love to posses.
    The Craftsman has mastered his craft and can fabricate the artists or artisans vision. Through the process of creating the vision they may start to learn the design process and start on their way to becoming an artisan or artist.
    Just my take on the subject,
    Chris J

  9. Jeff Burks says:

    George Crabb on the difference between an artist, artisan, and artificer.
    English Synonymes Explained – 1816. (pdf)

    http://tinyurl.com/d2qhpbh

  10. muradostudio says:

    Artist: sets his own paradigm of perfection, wich is only know for him and he works without knowing where that paradigm would be.
    Artisan: works to the highest excellence of a existing paradigm of perfection, everybody can tell how far from it his effords are.
    Crafts person : somebody who works within a tradition of knowledge

  11. Artists invent original things or at least partially original. Could be philosophy, food,clothing, music, anything.
    Craftspeople copy artists.
    Not sure about artisans, but I like the thing about “vulgar arts” funny…

  12. amvolk says:

    Then there is another descriptor: Designer, as in “David Marks, Designer/Craftsman.” Does that also mean he is an artist or artisan?

  13. Glenn Ingram says:

    I think this is a fascinating subject and Matt did a great job on the paper. To his final question of whether or not the distinctions are important, in the sense of function (to the craftsman), they are absolutely unimportant; just get to work doing what you love. But there is a lot of emotion and importance placed on them nonetheless and the artist would say these distinctions are infinitely important.

    I feel like “artist” has undergone amazing transformations especially with modern art becoming so popular. My dad is a hobbyist bird photographer whose passion is capturing birds in their most realistic light (utility). He and his photography friends have this ongoing joke when they take an out-of-focus or whatever problematic picture; they say, “Hey, this one is art!” This parallels Peter Ross’s sentiments on the view of craftsmen toward artists. I see this over and over again in other mediums where craftsmen (or viewers) see many things considered “art” as crap that someone is just calling art.

    I had an informative experience once around this subject. I delivered a painting to a friend (his mother gave it to him). It was a beautiful (in my opinion) oil painting of a small rowboat on choppy water and a cabin on the shore. I thought the painter (artist?) did a wonderful job of capturing the waves, the movement of the water and boat, and even the emotion of the scene. My friend too one look at it and called it “junk art.” I just scratched my head trying to figure out what he was talking about. He is a fan of modern art. To him, art is not about representing something or about utility, but all expression. In fact, he sees utility as making something “junk art” or perhaps not art at all. On the other hand, the art that he hangs on his wall always makes me shake my head and laugh at how he was tricked into buying someone’s doodles or paint spills.

    In my own opinion, I find it hard to swallow something as art that does not require technical skill in the craft. The point of the modern artist is not to display skill but to display expressiveness or perhaps just to make us think, piss us off, uplift us, who knows? But many modern artists are definitely not attempting to display technical skill.

    I guess my point is that “art” and therefore “artist” is really intangible and varied on the opinion of the beholder. Utility is definitely not a requirement of art though it can be there.

    “Artisan” and “craftsman” are terms that I have never thought to differentiate, but they both are about technical skill in creating something useful with or without embellishment. It seems to me that most artisans or craftsmen identify themselves by their craft of “woodworker,” “potter,” “blacksmith,” etc. where most (but not all) artists identify themselves as “artists” and then you have to ask what their medium is. In reality, though, asking the person doing the work how they identify themselves probably has more to do with their own opinion of their work and self-esteem than anything. Some people will never consider themselves skilled in an area no matter how good their work is. Others seem to think everything they do is perfect.

    These are really philosophical questions that don’t have factual answers, only opinions. The point is not to answer the questions, but to explore them.

  14. Matt Pelto says:

    Thank you all very much. Your help on this matter is deeply appreciated!

  15. kenmorgan says:

    Matt’s essay skirts around the essential problem—the slippery nature of words. Every word means something different to every speaker and every listener (or reader). Their meaning can change drastically depending on their context. They can rarely carry the freight we give them when we send them off expecting to be understood. The trouble with dictionaries and etymologies is that fewer people use them or respect them and they are museums in any case. Right now words are more slippery than ever. A century ago, a higher percentage of the population read and they all tended to read many of the same things—the King James Bible, and other classical texts. That stabilized our language and enriched our culture.

    Now fewer people read and they share fewer of the same readings. What we now share is an oral language with a small vocabulary circulated by radio, TV, movies, and tweets. This robs words of subtle distinctions and turns them into a muddle of synonyms. So we are now in great need of that kind of artist who, despite the muddle, can tease out of the best sense of the meaning of a word, in relation to the context of its use, and the audience to which it is directed. Which is why I am addicted to reading Mr. Christopher Schwarz who is so deft at this. In addition to his literary craftsmanship, his publishing is assembling and preserving a body of literature and language that will preserve and enrich this craft.

  16. Bob Gammage says:

    Having given this some thought, I’ve concluded the difference relates to form and function. An architectural mantra is that form follows function, but I feel form and function can be applied well to this discussion. A craftsperson’s primary focus is upon function, an artisan’s on both, and an artists’ upon form. A craftsperson would build a very sturdy chair this is also comfortable. It might be hideous to lookup upon, and might be incredibly over-built (excessively strong), but it works very well indeed. An artisan, conversely, would build a chair that has only sufficient structural integrity to stand the test of time, is very comfortable to sit in, and is very pleasing to the eye. An artist would build a chair that is immensely pleasing to the eye that could be highly uncomfortable, nay even impossible, to sit upon; and might last only so long as it is not actually used. Yeah, that’s it, that’s the ticket.

    • muradostudio says:

      Art serves a function as well, to entertain the imagination, and to let you indulge in magical thinking, wich only humans can do.
      A painting on the wall of an apartment is not very different of the plasma tv on the opposing wall ,or the desing sofa under it,in terms of it’s function in the household ,the main dirence (besides subjective considerations) is that the painting will be never get “used” by the by the use of it, that is by looking at it, the TV set is going to be sooner or later be burn out by using it.
      So the painting is not the art, art resides in the painting wich is only a carrier, the object is mistreated will be destroy but the substance will remain, we will not have way to acces it but it will be.

  17. pfollansbee says:

    I first saw this poem in Bill Coperthwaite’s book, A Handmade Life

    What is He?
    D. H. Lawrence

    What is he?
    -A man, of course.
    Yes, but what does he do?
    -He lives and is a man.

    Oh quite! But he must work. He must have a job of some sort
    -Why?
    Because obviously he’s not one of the leisured classes.
    -I don’t know. He has lots of leisure. And he makes quite beautiful chairs.

    There you are then! He’s a chair maker.
    -No, no
    Anyhow a carpenter and a joiner.
    -Not at all.

    But you said so
    -What did I say?
    That he made chairs and was a joiner and carpenter
    -I said he made chairs, but I did not say he was a carpenter.

    All right then he is just an amateur?
    -Perhaps! would you say a thrush was a professional flutist, or just an amateur?

    I’d say it was just a bird
    -And I say he is just a man.
    All right! You always did quibble?

  18. Sean Hughto says:

    Make quality – the best or your generation and capable of standing with the best of previous and coming generations. Then let them call you whatever they will, for the quality speaks for itself and their labels mean nothing.

  19. stonedahls says:

    This subject is near and dear to me as of late. I’ve been reading and reading on the subject or subjects. The issue, as pointed out by many is very complex. But I feel that we have to look deeper into the actions or intended purpose of what it is we do or create to find the answers. I believe the words like Art, Craft, etc….have lost some of their meanings or have been blurred over time and through the industrial production era of our past. Something to read on this is The Theory of Craft by Rissatti. I believe that that today, in the modern world, with the current blurred definitions, that it comes down to the first intended purpose of what we create, it’s function. Yes, art has a function. If I carved a spoon and wanted to try to communicate some emotion or experience to the viewer, first and foremost, then I have created art. Art communicates first and foremost. If the spoon was intended to be used as true to it’s original design or purpose than its a craft item. Craft items are based in utility decorated or not. I don’t use the word craft lightly either. Although, if we look at the word craft, it does have a very interesting history. Today, culturally and that is an important point, we see wooden items, clay items, metal items as craft items, as long as they are handmade with or without the use of machines to help us. Factory made items made entirely by machine must fall into another category. Not for our discussion here. So, my purpose and intent is to make utilitarian items, designs for use i.e. spoons, bowls, baskets. These items can be put on the wall, but they are not art, at least to me, because I didn’t make them as art or to communicate somethings as their intended purpose. If the owners of my painted spoons want to be like Duchamp and create a “ready made” art object with my spoon. Then they are, though the art world would argue, the artist, by trying to communicate something with the item I created. I am a craftsman(if I was a women I would be a craftswomen) what I create is craft. Sorry, long winded on this subject. It’s something that needs to be talked about more these days.

  20. ejcampbell says:

    The definition of artist I think has changed in the 29th century from skilllfull reproduction of nature to someone who is trying to convey a thought or feeling non-verbally. (We exclude Ikea picture instruction sheets, which would otherwise be included by this definition.) A craftsman is someone who has mastered a craft to a high level and produces work in that craft skillfully. A good artist is skillfull, and a craftsman in his medium, a poor artist isn’t. Either of the two may be professional full time practicioners, or paty-time amatuers. An artisan produces (usually individually) useful objects, which may or may not have artistice merit and usually, but not always display craftsmanlike quality. So the distinguishing characteristics are iintent and skill level.

  21. In my life, I have used the poop on canvas test to help me find my way when evaluating my own work or that of someone else.

    To reduce my sentiment to a few bullet points, I use this model:

    An artist can poop on a canvas.

    Regardless of the intent of the artist, by becoming art, the meaning is truly never able to defined. An audience will find the work, it will mean something to each one, it cannot be defined by it’s media, (no McLuhan jokes please), or actually by it’s creator.

    An artisan can poop on a canvas, but, MUST be for a reason.

    The work demands a reason. Artisans are accountable to the concept of design, which in my rather simple view of the world is expressed as thus:
    Design always two things, Having an idea AND communicating it.

    A craftsman poops on a canvas because it is a means to an end.

    It is an act that can be honed with technique, practice, training and harnessing raw skill. Not mutually excluding the of works above, but the greatest craftspeople I encounter share a common thread amongst them concerning the acquisition of a skill. The ability to transition from the blocky, uncoordinated, sloppy beginning to the smooth, ingrained harmonized place that exists when mind an body execute an action with minimal involvement of either one.

    For reference:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Ofili

    It’s a great question and after a lot of years in art school, the only thing I can say with absolute confidence is that anyone who says they can define the difference between art and anything else, is on a path to self discovery of the error of their ways.

  22. Henry Miller says:

    The difference exists to give those who can’t do something to argue about. I need to get back to creating, you can call me an artist, craftsman, artisan; or fool, idiot, insane. It changes nothing about me, but if you need an excuse to argue in a bar over some drinks I guess it is as good as anything else.

    Someday my body will fail, I will then argue with someone else in the nursing home about the difference. The argument will be heated at times, just because we have nothing better to do. When we pass to the great beyond I hope to meet my nemesis and we will share a good laugh about the trivial things we did back on earth.

  23. rwyoung says:

    I think my annual re-read of “Art and Fear” is coming up soon. Maybe I should move it up on the schedule. Good book. Well worth the little bit of time it takes to read.

  24. Charles Smith says:

    I enjoyed this discussion a great deal. I have spent many hours over hard liquor discussing the difference between “commercial art” and “art”. The short answer was that if you were able to live off of your art you had sold out to the “man”and become a commercial artist.

    I believe one can be an artisan without necessarily being an artist. Artist in my mind goes to original work and artisan goes to capability with the tool.

    I always enjoy your thoughts.

    Charlie

    Sent from my iPad

  25. Lumiere Noir says:

    I know this comment is quite late in the discussion, but I’ve only just come on this thread.

    I feel that craftsmen create out of personal necessity to make objects or repairs for their own use, or for sale for the use of others. They learn their trade by whatever means they can; they seek out ways to do things more quickly, and perhaps more cheaply. They become repositories of techniques and experience. Let’s say these are the founders, the discoverers, the grandparents. They say, “Look at what I have done.”

    I believe that artisans synthesize the techniques and experiences of the craftsmen and create masterworks of great technical prowess with them. They study, experiment and advance the craft to amazing heights, yet they don’t necessarily produce items of any personal significance. These are the sons and daughters of the founders. They are steeped in traditions which they preserve, perfect and extend. They say, “Look what I can do!”

    Then the artists come along. These are the grandchildren. They are likely to absorb all that has gone before, but they are also likely to tear it to pieces and deconstruct it. They stretch all the old traditions into new directions or they part with them and break new ground. Above all they create items of personal significance, either to themselves or to their audience. All art calls attention to itself, and to this end, artists might use incredible mastery of technique, or they might break all the ‘rules’ and get the attention they want by creating works of shocking rawness. The artist says, “Look at me!” and “Look at you!”

    And then the cycle begins again.

    Vince Frost

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