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Arts & Crafts and Fine Arts: What’s the Difference?

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Fine Arts teachers often cringe when their classes are referred to by unknowing parents or colleagues as ‘Crafts’ or ‘Arts & Crafts’. There is, in fact, a major difference between Fine Arts and Arts & Crafts, both of which are distinct entities. Often, the terms are used interchangeably by the uninformed, but to an Art teacher (or professional artist), there is a negative stigma attached and one cannot be mistaken for the other. Learn how to recognize the difference between Fine Arts and Arts & Crafts below:

High Art vs. School Art – A Look into the History of Art Education

Art Education became a required discipline in U.S. schools during the 1800’s Industrial Revolution, when students primarily learned drawing and drafting, important skills which could be used in designing factories and engineering new products.

An Art Education trend in the early 1900’s led to the introduction of ‘School Art.’ It was thought that children shouldn’t learn technical skills, but should be experimenting with materials and creating images of their choosing. Enthusiasm was more important than learning skills, and new materials such as finger paint were invented.

When the progressive Montessori curriculum became popular, children were taught to use materials only in a specific, acceptable way that did not create a mess. Individual expression was disregarded and emphasis was placed on making the school polite and hospitable. These trends created the basis of the modern Kindergarten and elementary classroom – where ‘School Art’ was designed to be child-centered, based on warm holiday themes, non-messy, and experimental.

Arising later, a backlash against ‘School Art’ proclaimed that this was not Art at all and did not teach students an appreciation for the ‘High Art’ that existed in museums and the professional Art world. 

What is Arts & Crafts?

In the Art world, ‘Crafts’ is the overall term for artwork or products that are skillfully created by hand by practiced experts – ‘the craft of woodworking’, ‘the craft of glassblowing’, or the ‘craft of pottery’.

The term ‘Craft’, however, has been taken out of context to represent the ‘crafts’ made by young children and to those who set up handmade, seasonal home-decorating wares for sale at ‘craft’ shows. The term has been turned into a verb and adjective: “I’m feeling crafty today!” or used as a decorating style: “I’m decorating my living room with crafts.” In a school setting, ‘Arts & Crafts’ is the new term for the idea of ‘School Art’, referring to students making a similar general decorative product from the step-by-step instructions of an advisor.

What is Fine Arts?

In the Art world, ‘Fine Arts’ is the term used for the overall study of the professional field of Art – past and present. In a school setting, ‘Fine Arts’ refers to students learning who professional artists are and what they do, utilizing strategies, perfecting advanced skills, studying history and gaining an appreciation for ‘High Art.’

The Focus

The focus of Arts & Crafts is for students to create single, guided activities with a pre-conceived end result. Often, the assigned projects are based on holiday themes, events, or in conjunction with enhancing learning in another topic. For instance, if students are learning about penguins in Science, they might take half-gallon milk containers and craft them into standing penguins; or, if Thanksgiving is approaching, students might be assigned to trace their hands and fingers, then glue on feathers to create turkeys. If students are introduced to a culture, often it is stereotypically touching the surface (like cutting out menorahs or making a dream-catcher). The focus in Arts & Crafts is making a product.

The focus of Fine Arts is for students to learn the history of Art -artists, cultures, movements, style and the history of civilization; to improve skills, vocabulary, techniques and studio methods based on the practices of real artists; and to discern, think critically about, and evaluate Art. A Fine Arts lesson may begin with studying the history of Japanese printmaking and the artist Hokusai, learning the methods of relief printmaking, creating a print, and then evaluating it critically afterwards. When students are introduced to other cultures, the Fine Arts teacher goes into detail, placing an artwork in its cultural context (students do not just recreate an African mask, they learn how and why they were made, their significance and symbolism, then create an original idea for a mask of their own, using similar techniques). The focus in Fine Arts is gaining in-depth knowledge.

The Materials

The materials used in Arts & Crafts include inexpensive, safe, readily available products: washable paints, glitter, school glue, feathers, googly-eyes, cookie cutters, popsicle sticks, beads, play-dough, construction paper, Styrofoam cups, paper plates, chenille pipe-cleaners, yarn and often dozens of pre-assembled ‘kits.’

The materials used in Fine Arts include higher-quality oil and acrylic paints, canvas, clay, specialty brushes, screen-printing materials, sharp tools, computers, custom products used for certain techniques, and other materials that career artists use in the field.

The Techniques

The techniques of Arts & Crafts rely heavily on students learning to follow directions. This often explains why you often find that students who make the ‘best’ or ‘neatest’ elementary crafts are often the advanced young children – the ones who have learned how to listen to a teacher and follow their directions closely. Incidentally, it is the most creative students that tend to do poorly with reproducing examples at a young age, but later grow up to become amazing, creative artists.

The techniques of Fine Arts are predominantly based on imitating the methods used by professionals and working on perfecting those vocational skills – whether it is learning how to use equipment, software, tools, research methods, critical analysis, or principles of design. While students are mastering the techniques of professionals, they are encouraged to think creatively, be original and express themselves.

The End Result

The desired end result of an Arts & Crafts activity is to create a duplicate copy of a teacher-made project. Often, the goal is for students to do their best in neatly copying the teacher’s example, showing expertise in simple skills, such as cutting, gluing and assembling. An Arts & Crafts teacher wants to be able to display the student’s work in the hallway, or send it home for parents to display on the refrigerator.

The desired end result of a Fine Arts activity is for students to creatively express themselves and their own interests and ideas, while experimenting with new mediums and practicing technical skills. A Fine Arts teacher wants students to learn from the process of the activity, which is seen as more valuable than the end product. Frequently, there are open-ended results to a Fine Arts lesson.

The Benefits

The benefits of both Arts & Crafts and Fine Arts are many. Arts & Crafts introduces and helps young students to practice basic skill sets. Though activities are carefully guided, students are given the opportunity to learn about the decorative arts, and their interest for Art may be developed to pursue further learning in Art later on. In short, Arts & Crafts helps promote interest in Fine Arts. Likewise, the benefits of Fine Arts are many: it benefits serious Art students by helping them to advance further skill, prepares career artists, teaches students to think critically about the world around them, helps students to understand visual media and cultural propaganda, and enhances learning of human civilization.

Who cares? Why is there a stigma?

So why do Art teachers care if they are referred to as ‘Crafts’? For starters, Art teachers are constantly on the guard and in defense of their positions. They have to be – schools all across the country are cutting their Art programs. From the “No Child Left Behind” Act, schools are slashing all parts of education not associated with the main testing areas – Reading/Writing, Math, etc. Art teachers have to continually advocate for their programs and explain how Art can help enhance learning in other subject areas – Art students read about Art, write about it, learn about History, use Math, scientifically experiment with materials, etc. Art teachers are constantly promoting the educational aspects of their programs, and fighting for their place in the schools. They must re-assert that they are not babysitters, they do not glue macaroni on paper with students, they do not have students draw in coloring books – but that they are a core educational program, just like Math or Science, teaching their own state-required objectives. To call an Art teacher’s work ‘Crafts’ is to essentially demean the teacher – it lowers the importance of everything they work for, and deems it to be less than serious.

A Time and Place: Fine Arts and Arts & Crafts

Would you say that ‘playing catch’ is equal to learning the fundamentals, strategies, teamwork, and history of Baseball? Would you say that giving a child a tambourine to shake is equal to learning about the history of Music, important composers, playing an instrument in an orchestra, and learning about rhythms, crescendos, chords and other musical terminology? Probably not. While one is an entire field of learning, the other is a simple activity introducing a basic skill which may help to promote interest in the other – however, both are valid and neither is better or more correct than the other.

In truth, there is an appropriate time and place for both Fine Arts and Arts & Crafts, as they both offer distinct benefits and cater to different audiences. While Crafts may be more appropriate for preschools, general classrooms, Sunday schools, or camps; the whole discipline of Fine Arts is what should be taught in school Art classrooms. The importance, however, is just to distinguish between the two and understand that they are not the same thing.

Learning the difference between Fine Arts and Arts & Crafts is important for a number of reasons. First, it helps avoid confusion – especially for students (and their parents). Second, it reiterates the importance of the educational aspect of Fine Arts – a subject that is unfortunately viewed as ‘expendable’ by administrators and the public who grew up viewing FineArt and Crafts as interchangeable. Third, it shows respect to each discipline, by giving them (and their teachers) their due respect.

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