What is Functional Art?
“All art is craft, but not all craft is art”. This statement is indicative of the elitist prejudice that exists
to this day regarding the so called value of Fine Art versus craft. Typically, the term Fine Art applies
to works that are supposed to carry an intellectual and emotional sensibility together with beauty.
To create that piece of Fine Art requires skill, irrespective of the concept. But craft work is skilled
work too. Any kind of craft and art requires the application of a technique.
Functional Art occupies the middle ground between Fine Art and the everyday. It refers to
aesthetic objects that serve utilitarian purposes.
The word art derives from the Latin, ars, meaning skill. The word craft comes from the Old English,
craeft, meaning strength, skill. In other words, originally, there was no difference between the two
Ancient civilisations placed equal importance on pottery and sculpture, for example. And this was
the case for centuries in Europe. What was created in whatever materials in workshops, run by
Masters, had to adhere to strict Guild Regulations. Objects were attributed to the “collective” – i.e.
artisans, and, in a sense, the concept of artist did not exist.
This changed at the start of the 15 th century when a new cultural ideal – Renaissance Humanism –
emerged. Value was now given to individual creativity rather than collective production. Artisanal
work was now demoted to inferior status, despite the technical skill required.
For the first time in History, innovation became more highly prized than preserving traditions. Artist
and artisan were now defined according to skills and materials.
This was reinforced by the Germanic School of Art Historians and led to an elitist view towards
painting and sculpture and was, in turn, supported by philosophical arguments by R.G. Collinwood,
among others, who believed art was an open ended process subject to change as the work unfolded.
This argument was refuted by William Morris and Walter Gropius, who established the Bauhaus
Movement. Neither believed there was any distinction between art and craft. They believed all
artists were craftsman in the original sense of the word, similar to the Japanese saying – Shu Ha Ri –
“Learn the craft first and the art will follow”.
Art Historians like Mildred Constantine and Laura Morelli ask where the art/craft distinction leaves
objects created in other cultures who do not separate art and craft, for example Japanese basket weaving,
where works by Yamaguchi Ryuun and Sato Yuten are considered sculpture. They argue it is not an
issue of medium, technique or materials, but more about “enviable innovation”.
Functional Art, as with Fine Art and craft, requires intelligent hands and a deep understanding of the
materials used. The American painter Chuck Close wrote, “Every painting in the world was made
with a process”. It is the innovation and discipline in the use of whatever medium used that
transcends any philosophical distinction between art and craft. Some believe that Modern Art
Movements, like Conceptual Art, are attempts to produce art without craft, and it could be said that
Functional Art is the opposite of Marcel Duchamp’s work, where he transformed utilitarian objects –
a urinal for example – into conceptual art; it was art because he said it was.
The American artist Georgia O’Keefe was once asked what art meant to her. She replied it was
simply a matter of “filling an empty space with a beautiful thing”. If it is beautiful, does it really
matter how it was made, or from what?