Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate
Terminology is tricky; one wrong word and you can accidentally mislabel or offend. In the visual arts, language constantly changes to reflect the transformative nature of artistic style and movement. We see this in the use of artisan versus artist.
In the Middle Ages, artisan referred to two groups of skilled laborers or tradesmen: journeymen and masters. Journeymen didn’t operate their own businesses while masters did. Bound by traditions, techniques, and standards, guilds formed to ensure a base level of quality and pricing in the city they operated in. Masters trained apprentices to meet these standards; once apprentices earned journeyman credentials they worked until becoming accepted as masters, opening their own businesses to train the next generation of apprentices. A cycle that repeated continuously. Therefore, artisans focused on the craftsmanship of their products using proper techniques, in lieu of expressing an artistic idea, to maintain their credentials and thus their livelihood. In the Renaissance, however, the birth of genius emerged, as works produced by painters and sculptors were considered more than demonstrations of great skill and mastery of craft. These artists worked on a different creative paradigm that transcended mastery of technique and creating for a single purpose in favor of expressing a specific vision. Although skill and technique could be useful tools, they were no longer paramount. Despite erecting some barriers between their own ideas and commissions, these “genius” artists were favored by kings and queens, kept at court, and elevated in status with titles and official court appointments; sometimes, they were even poached from their home court by a neighboring ruler! Francis I of France invited Leonardo da Vinci from Italy to France following the recapture of Milan by French forces and Hans Holbein the Younger, known for painting Henry VIII and his wives, was originally from Augsburg (a free city in the Holy Roman Empire) before becoming King’s Painter in England. Although many of these painters had their own studios (in fact, sometimes you will see a label that reads “Studio of Rembrandt” because it can be hard to tell who completed the painting!) where artists came to learn, these burgeoning artists were not seeking entry into and recognition from a guild to practice their craft. Instead, they were learning and adopting the style of the teaching painter to their own, no standards necessary. The 16th century draws the line between the creator of useful objects (artisan), no matter how ornate or marginally functional they may be, and the fine arts of painting and sculpting (artist).
The Industrial Revolution put many artisans out of commission, as the production of materials and commercial goods became mechanized. Today, artisans are distinguished by the handmade, non-mechanized aspect of their work that prides itself on quality (both in material and production) over quantity. In this way, artisans and artists are also differentiated by their materials.
An artisan works with their hands to create both functional and strictly decorative pieces with masterful skill. Does an artist not use a paintbrush…with their hands? Yes; however, an artist can lack formal training and credentials and still create works of art while an artisan relies on their knowledge and ability to transform a piece of wrought iron into a horseshoe or wood into a rocking chair. The technical skill of the artisan is so important it spawned guilds. Bound by traditional conventions, the artisan is defined by their materials and focuses on the product itself; in fact, they are recognized by it: the blacksmith, the metalworker, the engraver, or the jeweler. The artist, on the other hand, is ruled by expression and at liberty to pour their imagination and emotion through any medium. Though they, too, were recognized by academies for their greatness, may artists just as easily spurned these designations to create something new (Impressionists were turned away from Academies and exhibitions for their lack of technical style). Creating “art for art’s sake”, the artist values aesthetic over function in whatever material they choose. The artisan chooses their material for the functionality it provides to their piece, for example, a blacksmith is not going to make a horseshoe out of glass. In fact, a blacksmith making a horseshoe out of glass would make it an art object!
An artist creates, practices, or demonstrates any art; an artisan specializes and masters one craft. Many critics demean craft as less than art, particularly as craft has dominated the feminine, domestic sphere. In reality, craft and art are subsets of each other. Artists are a subset of artisans, and for many, the contemporary nomenclature is dependent on how the creator views themselves and their products: artist, artisan, designer, maker, craftsperson. A buzzword we often see in conjunction with artisan and artist is artisanal. Artisanal breads, for example, indicate hand-processing over mechanization. These handmade food products, usually breads, cheeses, and wines, are just another subset in an effort to categorize and rank.
Perhaps ultimately superfluous, these designations between utility and decoration, the functional artisan and the fine artist, do establish categories for creators. What they need to relinquish is the engrained hierarchy of one superseding the other and recognize that both are equally important to, and in, the world of art.