Artist vs. Artisan

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between an artist and an artisan? This unnecessarily sensitive question is equivalent to the issue of what constitutes art and what is designated as craft.

In both cases, the former word essentially refers to the making of tangible or intangible products as an expression of creativity and imagination for purely aesthetic reasons. An artisan, meanwhile, though spurred by the same impulses, produces crafts, which, though they may be acquired only for decoration, are designed to be practical.

Therefore, though some tension between artist and artisan — between producers of art and designers of crafts — may exist because of a perceived differential in their relative cultural status, the technical definitions are just that: precise distinctions not in quality or artistic achievement but in function.

The word for the creator of art is the gender-neutral term artist. (The French form of the word, artiste, came to apply more broadly to creative professionals, especially performers, though it also has a pejorative sense of “pretentious artist.”) By extension, one talented in any endeavor — even a con artist — may earn the term.

By contrast, makers of crafts have gender-specific labels — craftsman and craftswoman — but though craftsperson is the natural neutral term, many such practitioners prefer to be called artisans. (The Latin ancestor of this term is artire, which means “to instruct in the arts.”)

Other words that ultimately derive from the Latin word ars (“art”) include artifact, which comes from the Italian word artifatto and ultimately from the Latin terms arte and factum (meaning “thing made”), originally having primarily an archaeological sense but now referring to anything left behind or remaining, and artifice, which originally meant workmanship but, from a secondary sense of “cunning,” came to refer to deceit or trickery. (However, artificer remains a synonym for artisan, although it can also refer to one who contrives or makes things or ideas.) Artificial, the adjectival form of artifice, broadly refers to anything not produced in nature.

Artful once referred exclusively to artistic skill but later primarily came to mean “dexterous, wily”; in that sense, the term is best known in the moniker of the Artful Dodger, an adroit young pickpocket in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist. The antonym, artless, likewise was originally a reference to a lack of talent but now usually refers to clumsiness in word or deed.

Arty and artsy both describe artists, but the terms have developed a pejorative sense of pretension, and artsy is hyphenated in combination with craftsy and, worse, fartsy, to refer to someone with such airs, or a creation of theirs.

Art is used in combination with other terms to denote subgenres with serious artistic ambitions (“art film,” “art rock”) as well as artistic movements, as in “art deco,” a truncation of the French phrase art décoratif (“decorative art”), and art nouveau (“new art”); the first letter of each word in these phrases is often capitalized, especially when associated with other initial-capped designations. Another movement, named arts and crafts, is usually initial-capped to distinguish it from generic references.

The liberal arts are the academic subjects also known as the humanities. The term liberal stems from the idea that knowledge of these subjects and the attendant skills are necessary for free people to know in order to be productive members of society.

From the phrase “liberal arts” comes the designations for mastery of coursework known as the bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees (truncated, alternatively as “bachelor’s degree,” or bachelor’s, and “master’s degree,” or master’s). These terms have no specific relation to art itself, though study and/or practice of art may be a component of the coursework.

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3 Responses to “Artist vs. Artisan”

  • Roberta B.

    Very often we hear the use of the word “artisanal” – a very clumsy sounding word (at least in my opinion) – used as an adjective for something made by artisans. On the other hand, maybe to some people it sounds melodious. I heard one commentator using the word “artesian” when I think he meant to use artisanal, since I don’t think what he was referring to came from an underground spring.

  • Aden Nichols

    He who works with his hands is a laborer.
    He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
    He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

    This quote is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but I’ve been told one can find it in Louis Nizer’s book, “Between You and Me” (1948). Haven’t had the chance to “fact check” this one yet, but regardless of the source, I love the quote…

  • MadhusudanR

    @Roberta B.
    I wanted to add something to your point. The adjective form of “artisan” is clumsy especially when used in website names followed by a [, or for that matter, any] noun.

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