Art is craftsmanship

Author Marijke A. Deege

"Art is craftsmanship"

This statement will right away have proponents and opponents. Much discussion has been taking place about this already, yet there is still a lot to be said about art and craftsmanship. This requires careful manoeuvring, however, since to talk about craftsmanship in the arts also means to consider quality and that comes with the potential for conflict.

I have often heard opponents of craftsmanship state that expertise in art has everything to do with building on a tradition, and little or nothing with innovation or pushing the boundaries of art. The craft, the language of the material, would typically be part of the task of an artist bound by tradition. I always find this claim somewhat dubious, because not every tradition-bound artist can boast great expertise and not all innovative art lacks it.

Movements in the arts

Why is it that craftsmanship has such a negative connotation for innovative and ground-breaking artists? Although this now appears to be changing, it wasn't that long ago that artists and designers who focussed all their attention on ideas - for whom the concept was paramount, and originality was considered the most valuable gift bestowed upon them by the muses - completely side-lined the techniques of the craft. Not surprisingly, this was especially true for the arts of sculpting (bronze, stone and wooden statues) and painting. However, sculptors also tried out newer materials, such as polyester, applied different stylistic elements, or used their art to address contemporary themes.

There will always be movements in the arts, from figurative to abstract expressions and vice versa, from precious materials and intensive labour to art made of anything and everything, but...

What is quality in the arts?

Careful consideration is needed when it comes to talking about quality. After all, establishing the quality of something requires an appraisal. An appraisal of art often leads to a difficult discussion, particularly in the visual arts.

The quality standards are quite clear for healthcare, medical research, dairy farming, agriculture, drinking water, the food industry, construction and education. There are materials of low quality and high quality. There are many areas in which quality must be an absolute guarantee for safety and excellence. We can even agree that there is such a thing as quality of life for people and animals. But what standards can we apply to art when we evaluate its quality?

Especially when it comes to the visual arts, art historians, art philosophers, art sociologists, art gurus, art critics, art reviewers, art selectors, art fund directors, museum directors and relevant government officials use many sentences in reports, policy statements, recommendations, and so on, that are so rich with words and jargon that the unsuspecting reader or listener cannot help but feel that the art discussed must be of great importance. Yet those welters of words have never been able to tell me when it is that art deserves to be labelled ‘high quality’. For what works does ‘art is craftsmanship’ apply? Is that something to be decided on rank or authority? What are the prerequisites for being a good artist? Obvious questions, aren't they?

The prerequisites for being a good artist

In my opinion, it is important to consider the integrity with which the artist created the work. If the artist finds his or her ego more important than the work, and is very clearly driven by opportunism and the desire to make money quickly, then a major pillar of good artistry immediately ceases to exist.

Knowledge and understanding, expressive capacities, intentions and craftsmanship should be closely interwoven. But there is more: the emotional effect and the expressiveness of a work of art cannot be seen as separate from this - certainly not for the person looking at it. The emotional effect and expressiveness are difficult to evaluate objectively. However, artwork should be able to evoke an emotion in the beholder.

Art is quite often purchased with the heart. I’ve noticed that among the buyers of my own work. If a buyer not only feels the emotion, but also


If I had to give a definition of craftsmanship, I would say the presence of skill, mastery of the material, and passion.

Beauty sometimes requires mistakes

If artistry more praiseworthy than craftsmanship? In any case, it is not less praiseworthy. But lege artis (everything according to the rules of the art) doesn’t necessarily lead to a great artwork. Technical perfection can also be boring. Sometimes, ideas can be honed and polished so often, that the work loses its soul. Beauty sometimes requires mistakes.

Art is craftsmanship. Is this statement true? You tell me.