Art? Craft? What’s the difference?
My professor of design in art school used to say, somewhat jokingly, that a teapot is a craft object until you put a cork in the spout – then it suddenly becomes a piece of art… I always found that very interesting. There are so many hierarchies in the world of art and design and it’s intriguing trying to understand what determines those and where they originally come from. Why is sculpture considered as art and pottery as craft? Why do we make a difference between the artistic act of painting compared to illustrating? And why is decorative art less respected than fine arts? Well, today illustrators and crafters are held in high esteem and even seen like artists in their own right, but this was not always the case.
Now here’s a few reasons that readily comes to mind. Art is exclusive and unique whereas crafts are made in several – sometimes VERY many!!! – copies. Art is mostly making a pronounced statement whereas craft is oftentimes “just” decorative with a much less obvious intrinsic meaning. Art is more high end in the sense of being obtained merely for its own sake, where craft fulfils a need, often of a practical nature.
This is a very simplified and coarse division. But there is something even more interesting than this, and that’s how the human brain works when selecting and judging things in its environment. There’s an automatic, prewired layer, a level in which we respond to basic needs of survival and make decisions out of instinct. Another level processes our everyday behaviour, analysing situations and adapting behaviour accordingly. The third level is unique for human beings and it’s the contemplative part of the brain where we can think back and reflect on our experiences and learn new concepts and generalizations about the world for future use. They can be called the visceral, behavioural, and the reflective levels of the brain.
When we encounter an object our first reaction will be subconscious, that means that our biologically prewired preferences kick in and give us an immediate gut feeling, wether or not we feel attraction. Those preferences are deeply rooted in prehistory and leads to the fact that sweet tastes and smells, bright colours and symmetrical shapes attracts us spontaneously, because they were more safe for survival in the past. Today we often describe these things as “pretty” but as we all know, pretty is not cool, smart, nor deep or profound. Toys, clothes and everyday objects often reflect visceral principles to make us want something out of non analytical reasons, because it “feels” good.
But humans are more clever than this… we like to explore experiences that go beyond our prewired preferences so we learn how to like bitter tastes and irregular, unsymmetrical things. This is called “acquired taste” and works from the reflective level of the brain. Our acquired taste will help us define our personality and self-image as well as give us a sense of being more sophisticated. So if we want to have a so called “good” taste we should not submit to initial reactions but let our reflective level dominate our preferences.
Now we start to understand why some art is seen as more valuable and of higher importance than other outlets of creativity such as decorative arts or craft! The later speaks more directly to the visceral level of our brain, that is the part ruled by our instincts, while the fine arts and design need a “higher” level of reflection and developed acquired taste.
Making funny, pretty and cute things just out of joy is therefore seen like less skilful and intellectual and not so profound as fine arts, and preferring these “simple” things to more arty, sophisticated designs is a little frowned upon. Still, those things are so important because they make us feel comfortable, safe and happy! A cute dress might not change my life but it sure will make my day!
Tip! Read more about this fascinating subject in Donald A Normans classic book for designers: Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things
©maria larsson 2015