Let’s Discuss Art Versus Craft

Perhaps it’s time for a discussion of art versus craft. You may have noticed that one was started in the comments to the interview with Barbara Zaborowski. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but just want to get this started… Please feel free to comment and share your viewpoint.

First, let’s look at MaryAnn F. Kohl’s paragraph about craft versus art from my interview with her since I think she describes them both well and succinctly:

“I would like to differentiate between “ART” and “CRAFT”. Craft follows distinct steps to a required or expected outcome. Fun, yes, but not art. Art has no planned outcome, though there may be some specialized materials and techniques to use. The results are not planned or expected. Art is free. Craft is static. Process, not product.”

Personally I think that both art and craft are great in the right contexts.

I focus on art in my blog for a number of reasons. My education and background are in art for one, as is my interest. And since my own daughter is only 2 ½, I focus even more on activities that a young child can do and enjoy. I think that young children benefit more from a free exploration of materials and the freedom to create their own unique finished product than they do if they are asked to attempt to recreate an Easter Bunny out of construction paper and cotton balls.

That’s not to say that I don’t and won’t post about crafts or that we won’t ever make Easter Bunnies.

Crafts can be fun too! And of course it’s okay to make crafts with your children. I don’t do much of that yet with Maia because at 2 ½ I think she’s too young to wield scissors for one thing (I tried recently and she put them in her mouth) or to follow the directions for making most crafts. And because I want her first bunny to be a completely unique Maia creation rather than one that I think she ought to make. I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot more crafts with her over the years, including making paper chain garlands, holiday crafts and decorations, sewing projects, etc. I even subscribe to and enjoy FamilyFun, a magazine that is chock-full of crafts for families.

I do think, however, that crafts are over-used in childhood education in general, and often at the expense of art or even in the name of art. I know they were in the many public elementary schools I attended as a child. And I grew to hate it. I was someone who drew and painted a lot at home but when it came to “art time” at school, I had to cut out the same animal or holiday shape from construction paper as everyone else and glue it together in a predetermined way. I thought at the time, and still do, that it was often used as meaningless busy work to keep us occupied and quiet but not necessarily learning.

On the other hand, I think childhood crafts can be fun and even wonderful if the child wants to make them and if the maker has the freedom and encouragement to add his or her own creative touch.

Adults who craft do it because they love crafting and because they have the freedom to endlessly embellish and alter and add their own mark. They can create something original that they are proud of. Let’s give children the same freedom to create original rather than “cookie-cutter” crafts, even if it just means the freedom to make their tree purple rather than green.

What do you think?

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Jane Maritz
    March 6, 2008 at 6:55 am

    I personally like crafts because I’m not very artsy myself – I like ending up with something beautiful even though I couldn’t have come up with the idea from scratch. Boring, I know, but maybe it is genetic?
    I have been trying to encourage my 11-month-old in art – but she doesn’t seem too excited about it either. I put her in the bathtub with paint, for instance, and once she’s figured out how it works (colors her hand, etc.) in about two minutes, she is on to trying to screw the paint lid back on the jar, putting the rubber bathtub stopper on the jar, or turning the faucets. I was hoping she’d get into mixing colors and creating art. Same thing with markers – she “writes” with them, but far prefers to figure out how the tops go on – can two tops fit together? etc.

  • Reply
    B.E.
    March 6, 2008 at 9:11 am

    also, I am not happy about all this bagging on cookie cutters. COOKIES 4EVAH!!!

  • Reply
    melissa
    March 6, 2008 at 9:26 am

    I agree- also, I am a craftsperson/artisan, and what I do is NOT art, if for no other reason than I make it all to be used. It can be artistic, certainly, but it isn’t art- there for its own sake. Children’s art should be open-ended. Craft is rarely open-ended.
    I do pottery with my son- but he prefers to make art with the clay- fine by me. I don’t think that I do other crafts with him- but he’s all of 4. Preschool is definitely the time for open ended art projects. I shuddered when I passed a row of sunflowers made by 2 year-old with prescribed sunfower-seed circled and triangle petals that had to be just “so.” I’m glad that wasn’t my child’s class.

  • Reply
    Rachel
    March 6, 2008 at 9:34 am

    great post jean.
    when i started doing some form of art with my son, we mostly did crafts b/c it was all i knew. mostly the craft-making at that age was frustrating for both of us. your mothering article, actually, started a whole new journey in our family in the world of open-ended toddler art. i, like most people, don’t view myself as an artist or even very creative, for that matter. but i’ve found that my boys don’t seem to notice that… they just love lots of options, freedom to explore with those options, and lots of encouragement. we’re all more happy (my sons are now almost 3 and 16 mths) if we don’t have a end product we’re working towards, at this age anyway.
    i also would add– in response to jane’s comment above– that the playing with the pen tops and the art tools themselves— even if it isn’t actually making something– is part of the process of art. to me, that’s the beauty of the “process over product” mentality… it’s totally fine if they just play w/the materials and never get to actually making something. and it’s rare if either of my sons spend more than 2 minutes on a particular art activity…. but my older son still asks to do art almost every day, usually more than once/day.
    like most things, i think there is more than 1 good answer here. like you mentioned above jean, crafting, when given some space and freedom, can be great fun for a child. i look forward to the time when my boys and i can make ormaments, toys, bird houses, and other planned crafts together. and perhaps some kids can enjoy such activities at younger ages than others. it does seem, however, that some form of open-ended art could only benefit the child (and rest of the family, for that matter). even when my kids start to embrace craft-making, i plan to continue to encourage them with open-ended art activities as well.

  • Reply
    molly
    March 6, 2008 at 7:45 am

    I just tried to post this and it didn’t seem to go up — if it appears twice forgive me! I just wanted to mention that the American Craft Museum (in NYC) changed its name a few years back to the Museum of Arts and Design. Their press release explains why and seems relevant to this discussion. I won’t post the whole thing because it is long but if you want to read it, here is the link:
    http://www.madmuseum.org/site/c.drKLI1PIIqE/b.1118189/k.40E8/American_Craft_Museum_Changes_its_Name_to_Museum_of_Arts__Design.htm

  • Reply
    coastalgirl
    March 6, 2008 at 8:31 am

    Well said! On that note, a few of you who may not be familiar with digital art may find your children amused by the jacksonpollock website. Well….it’s not “real” paint and markers and there are limitations as to what you can do with the computer mouse, but the outcome is always different and colourful.
    Here is an example Leah did today:
    http://coastalgirl.typepad.com/coastalgirl/2008/03/real-art-digita.html

  • Reply
    Karin Machusic
    March 6, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Greetings! I really enjoyed reading these posts to a well-posed question. I have two nieces studying art – one is on scholarship at Pratt. They both spent their entire childhoods doodling and experimenting with a variety of art forms. Both enjoy crafting, too. I also have a daughter who does not consider herself much of an artist, but she draws frequently to accompany creative writing, which I think is really great! I write for a new blog called “Art for Creative Kids,” and I welcome you to check it out. We try to provide a blend of art activities that anyone can do online, as well as activities for home and info about contemporary and classic artists. Let me know what you think. Wishing you all a happy rainbow day!

  • Reply
    MamaBird
    March 6, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I think that both craft and open ended art have their place. I used to teach (writing) and often agonized about the balance between providing models/scaffolding for the kids and having them find their own voice. I think there’s room for both. My 4 yo daughter is content making her own creations with no designated end point and is also thrilled to complete paint(stickers) by number projects. I don’t think the “craft” stifles her creativity or art, but I agree that if craft is the focus or a stand-in for open-ended art, we’re in trouble. Also, I so love craft myself.I love the utilitarian nature of it and even the Arts and Crafts period itself so… I can’t just toss it out!

  • Reply
    kmarra
    March 6, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Hi Jean
    I too believe there is a real difference between arts and crafts. I think when kids are young and the materials are open ended and there is not an end product in mind, then it is not a craft project. Is it art? Hmmm I don’t know. I think in the begining it is exploration of materials. Then later, when you have a better idea of what the materials do and you have a plan or at least you create with “authority” then it is art. When you set out with specific instructions it is a craft project. My 9 year old daughter likes both art projects and craft projects and has for a while. My 3 year old really enjoys the sensory experience that goes along with art. Although both my 13 year old and my 9 year old roll there eyes at the thought of formal art. For that reason, I try really hard to make sure art is not too formal or pretensious in our house.
    Kristen
    http://www.pepperpaints.com

  • Reply
    Julie
    March 6, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    I’m really glad that you wrote this–I have been struggling with trying to keep a 7 year old that I babysit occupied. This entry helped me realize that I have been doing crafts with her rather than encouraging her to simply and freely do art. My next day with her should require much less effort–thank you!

  • Reply
    Tracy
    March 6, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    In the broader context, I believe that craft can be art. Craft can be open ended and not static. I have come to see in the world of craft a broad spectrum that includes utilitarian objects that are truly works of art (the quilts of Gees Bend, for example) as well as objects that exsist for their own sake. The website of the American Craft Council has some definitions of Craft you may find interesting.
    http://www.craftcouncil.org/
    click on “about craft’, then “craft is…”
    I especilaly like the second one by Peter Dormer
    In the context of children’s art, I agree that their experiences should be openended and free from unrealistic expectations of adults. As a former elementary school art teacher, I found that most adults had difficulty finding value in children’s art unless it looked like something to them. They valued the product rather than the process. I think its important to remember what may look like scribbling to you, may actually look like something to your child. When my daughter shows me something she’s drawn, I simply ask her to tell me about her picture. I am often amazed at the complexity of what’s going on in what looks like random scribbles or even a very simple image. In talking about this issue with my daughter’s preschool teacher (who was also a former art teacher) I was dismayed to hear that most parents at the school actually wanted to see their children bring home the “cookie cutter art”. She tried to find a balance of both to try to appease everyone.
    I am frustrated by the prevelance of coloring books, coloring pages, how to draw books, etc that bombard our children. It seems to say “you can’t draw, don’t even try. Color in this adult’s drawing instead.” There are coloring pages even at my daughter’s Montessori school. My daughter enjoys them, but in attempt to create some balance we have no coloring books at home, only drawing/painting paper. We take our drawing pads and colored pencils everywhere, and she draws like crazy. I do my best to provide her with a variety of quality art materials and her own space to create when she pleases.
    Finally, we are all artists. If you make or create or do something with your mind, heart and hands, why can’t that be art? Making something pretty, cooking a meal, planting a garden, or raising a child are all artistic endeavors.

  • Reply
    Kerry
    March 7, 2008 at 2:21 am

    I’m an artist (I have a degree in “experimental arts” and spent the 90’s doing installation art until schlepping TWO kids around city to city and sleeping on floors while I installed and opened and schmoozed got too hard to contemplate) AND I used to work for the Ontario Crafts Council in their Resource Centre and the Craft Gallery – which highlighted the very best of international craft.. The Crafts Council defined craft partially by materials (fibre, wood, glass and ceramic) and through self identification of the maker. I suppose there is an issue of series production in it as well, and an issue of “usefulness” but I knew craftspeople who never did a production piece in their career.
    Several of my art school profs looked down on craft and had similar definitions as Mary Ann Kohl. There’s some territorialism them :-)
    But I’m not sure where the line is, having staddled it my entire career. Are glass blower Laura Donefer’s witchpots static? Are printmakers making something that is all process or is production an issue for them?
    I’ve found my own way of approaching this in homeschooling, and in teaching art and creativity courses to other kids, and it has to do with MY intentions
    I use “craft” to teach skills that have nothing to do with the object they make. I look for teachable moments in their interest in craft – math skill development – counting, following patterns, measuring, geometry, etc, social studies – putting it in a historical context, regional geography and culture, reading and writing – practical stuff like reading and following directions, finding high interest reading material for them to encourage reading, motor skill development in doing the craft…
    I use “art” to expose them to…the idea that imagination is more valuable than any thing I could ever teach them.
    I make no assumptions about what they want from art – so I’ll teach them how to take good care of our art tools, I’ll provide lots of different materials, and then I’ll let them come to me with any particular skills they might want to develop – like drawing realistic looking birds for instance, but I won’t assume they want to know how to draw realistic birds.
    For myself…art is often about a message I need to get out there, an idea that is eating up my brain and needs out, and craft is about the meditative qualities of the process – not the product, I have little attachment to the product. Sort of the opposite of Mary Ann Kohl huh?

  • Reply
    threesneakybugs
    March 7, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Nice post. I want to answer your “what do you think” as well as respond to some of the comments.
    I think as an adult it’s sometimes easier and psychologically safer for us to start with a craft – such as knitting before moving on to something like fiber arts. For small children I think the opposite is true. They’re ready to explore and following directions is still a hard concept. Parents shouldn’t worry if they give a child markers and all they want to do is play with the caps at first or if they only spend 5 minutes or even less with the materials. The point for the very young is exposure. They need to get to know the materials before they are ready to move on. For painting we started with pretend painting with dry brushes, later moved on to painting with water. He could do this anywhere in the house or out in the yard with out me being concerned and watching over him. Also keep in mind that attention spans will lengthen as the child gets older. Don’t expect an hour of painting for 18 month old or even a 3 year old. Each child is beautifully different as is each day.
    For my family I’ve been trying to make available more artistic free time where I provide the materials but allow the kids to do as they like with them for as long as they like. That’s not to say we won’t do crafts where I can participate with them creating a desired result such as for holiday decorations. Both are important activities and neither should be shied away from.
    Side note – I started Seth on scissors a month or two before his 3rd birthday. We started with a Kumon workbook called Let’s Cut Paper!
    http://www.amazon.com/Paper-Kumon-First-Steps-Workbooks/dp/1933241144/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3?ie=UTF8s=booksqid=1204913334sr=8-3
    As I was feeling inadequate with how to teach this technique, especially to a lefty when I’m a righty, it was nice to have some suggestions and realistically laid out expectations as well as a set of projects to start us out. Seth loved it and now at 3 1/2 is freely cutting paper by himself. It’s not exactly straight but that’s not the point.

  • Reply
    threesneakybugs
    March 7, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Boy that was a long comment – sorry!

  • Reply
    BabyCenter: MOMformation Blog Archive
    March 7, 2008 at 9:57 am

    […] of my favorite blogs, The Artful Parent, has brought up a topic Ive been giving some thought to lately: childrens art versus […]

  • Reply
    OTJenH
    March 8, 2008 at 3:54 am

    What a great discussion on a subject I’ve also given a lot of thought to. Thanks Jean!
    As a parent and a professional (I am an occupational therapist wo works with preschool and school-aged children) I can see the enormous value in both art and craft experiences. I nodded my head in agreement with Mary Ann Kohl’s observations. I also consider art activities to be about the process and craft activities to be about the product. Both activities nurture different areas of development. And both are empowering for a child, as long as we don’t confuse the goals of one with the other.
    In my opinion art is an essential mode of self expression for a child. It is as vital to their day as talking, story-telling, and pretend play. Art helps children learn to process and respond to information from their senses, interact with different materials, gain mastery over their hands, and communicate their thoughts and feelings. It also encourages creative problem-solving and that “thinking-outside-of-the-box” quality that is considered such a rare commodity in adults. And, in early childhood, art lays the foundation for other essential forms of self expression such as writing, which is a cornerstone for learning.
    Crafts have their place too. Crafting is an opportunity for children to learn to follow directions, organize the steps of a plan, pay attention to detail and develop their motor skills. They help children learn to “figure-it-out.” Crafts reinforce functional skills we use throughout our day such as getting dressed, cleaning our room, setting the table, or cooking a meal. Ask any architect (chef, designer, engineer, etc) and she/he will attest to the value of being able to follow a blueprint. And although all of these activities are geared toward a certain end-product, I think they can all be approaced with an element of creativity, given you have an “artful” (Thanks again, Jean) attitude.
    There are elements of craft in every art project and, hopefully, elements of art in every craft project. I think that when we are conscious not to confuse the goals of each type of activity, children will become invested in all of their creations, perching them on the mantlepiece instead of dropping them in the parking lot.

  • Reply
    SarahC
    March 13, 2008 at 4:41 am

    I think Soul Mama shows how craft can be open ended with her kids.
    Using craft techniqes such as sewing, stitching, threading can be an open ended craft/art medium not be be mislead as adult guided craft. My 2.5 yr old can spend much time threading, snipping at fabric, pinning and stitching without my need to create an end product or with any end creation in mind.
    As an Early Childhood Eductor believe the process of the art is most important and find extreame limitations in adult lead art/craft activites, and personally I really do not want to make something for my daughter to pretend is hers – I more to do with my time like being imersed in the creation of something.

  • Reply
    Sarah
    June 20, 2008 at 5:20 am

    My kids have more freedom in their “craft” projects than Renaissance painters did in the portraits they were commissioned to complete. So they weren’t “artists”?

  • Reply
    Liz
    November 14, 2008 at 4:10 am

    I stumbled upon your article and I have been thinking about this all night for some reason. I don’t believe that there is a huge divide between art and craft. It seems in America that craft is perceived as a “low” art and widely accepted as a hobby and art is accepted as a “high” art and therefore much more likely to be hung up in a sterile museum to be silently admired. I’m an artist. I don’t do much craft but I am very interested in craft as an all American art form. It’s not static. It’s not pre-determined. It becomes pre-determined after somebody decides that it’s crafty enough to be published and it is given steps to the general public to re-create. Originally an artist had to make that creation.
    Craft is folk art. It’s art of the people. I collect folk art from all over the world and the most intense parts of many cultures come straight out of their folk art. Crafters and hobbyists are on the other side of the art world in this country. They are considered working people who like to make stuff. I absolutely consider them artists, even if they don’t know it.

  • Reply
    Art vs. Craft
    February 17, 2009 at 9:01 am

    […] jury is still out on this one. Im still exploring the debate and other interesting comments on the subject. Ill get back to […]

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