Artist vs Artisan: what's the difference?
For years now I’ve been fascinated by craftsmanship as a concept. I even wrote a book to argue that the values of craftsmanship are the future of work. The idea is that autonomy, creativity and responsibility are values that can influence the organisation of work in our digital age. It doesn’t apply only to people who make furniture, drapes and pottery, but also to those who create software, write texts or craft spreadsheets.
Because they have precious know-how, artisans can escape the commoditisation of work. It takes years to hone a valuable craft but it isn’t something inaccessible. Indeed artisans do share their know-how: transmission is an essential component of craftsmanship. It is rarely a solitary endeavour. It’s more often a form of collective intelligence.
I fully identify with the word artisan. In my work, I often collaborate with editorial teams. But even when I work alone, I’m not really alone. I draw upon the ideas of others. I use material crafted by others to create something new. Also I find that there are so many similarities between chiselling a text and carving wood, for example.
I was recently asked about the difference between artisans and artists. At the time I didn’t really know what to say. I admit I find the word artist somewhat intimidating and a lot less accessible. Often two people doing the same thing can choose either one of these two words to describe who they are. The difference isn’t always clear. But history is full of interesting lessons on that subject.
Here are some thoughts on the difference between artists and artisans.👇💡
The usual definitions aren’t very helpful
When you look at definitions on the internet, it’s immediately clear that there’s a big overlap between the two concepts. Merriam-Webster defines an artist as “a person who creates art (such as painting, sculpture, music, or writing) using conscious skill and creative imagination” and an artisan as “a worker who practices a trade or handicraft”. It doesn’t say whether music and sculpture are trades.
Both artists and artisans can use their hands to make things. Both can be professionals or amateurs. Collins’ definition of an artist is “someone who draws or paints pictures or creates sculptures as a job or a hobby.” Collins’ list 'of activities that can be described as art is quite conservative. Do only painters and sculptors count as artists? What about poets and composers?
Another distinction that’s habitually made is whether or not what you create is functional or not. The idea is that if you make something that can be useful (a vase or a house, for example) then you’re an artisan. But if you make something that’s just “for art’s sake” and beautifully useless, then you’re an artist.
An artisan is essentially a manual worker who makes items with his or her hands, and who through skill, experience and talent can create things of great beauty as well as being functional (…) An artist on the other hand is dedicated only to the creative side, making visually pleasing work only for the enjoyment and appreciation of the viewer, but with no functional value.
I’m afraid this criterion is quite unsatisfactory too. What about artists who compose “useful” music used for films or those who paint pictures used in advertising? Does it mean that the moment your work is used for something it ceases to be art? In that case all the art that’s sold for millions of $€ isn’t art because it serves the function of helping people make money!
I won’t bore you with more criteria. They all have their limits. One could think that it all boils down to what the person wants to call themselves and the values they want to stress. Perhaps artisans want to stress that they honed a craft and work collectively, whereas artists want others to see them as brilliant creative individuals?
Perhaps the word artist can also be used for its aspirational force. Whether you actually make a living doing art or you wait tables and paint on the side is irrelevant. Artist is the identity you choose for yourself. Perhaps that’s also why many self-described artists are tortured or pretentious (or both)?
How artisans became artists during the Renaissance
The truth of the matter is that the figure of the artist is a historical construct. Before the Renaissance individual painters and sculptors were rarely put forward. They called themselves artisans. In medieval times, painters were no different from shoe makers and makers: they were paid to do a job and wouldn’t have thought of signing their work. Like all artisans, they belonged to guilds. Sculptors for example belonged to the Guild of Masons. Interestingly painters were part of the Guild of Doctors & Apothecaries because they needed them for their supplies.
With the (blurry) transition from Middle ages to Renaissance came the growth of an intellectual movement that transformed culture: Renaissance humanism. Italian scholars discovered Ancient Greek thought. This led to more emphasis on individuals and agency. Artists began to take credit for their work. They also received more pay and saw their status increase.
In contrast to the modern notion of the artist as a solitary genius, most artists before the 14th century toiled in anonymity in the service of their patrons, whether Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, or medieval bishops.
In the Renaissance, some artists became stars. And because the prestige of the artist could trickle down onto the person who bought the art and/or was represented in the piece of art, numerous powerful people were willing to pay for it. Art prices rose along with the prestige of those who made it. None of this was gender neutral, of course. With the emergence of the figure of the creative artist, it is first and foremost a male archetype that rose to prominence. Indeed, the creator, in the image of God, is male.
Interestingly, many of the works of art of the time were collective works that involved dozens of people working together in workshops (much like collective craftsmanship). But eventually each work was signed by one person, i.e. the artist who had the powerful connections and the money to set up a workshop. In a way the artist was the businessman. But he was also the one whose name would go down in history. (I used the pronoun he because how many female artists were there in the Renaissance?)
When it comes to collective projects, the artist is just the one who takes all the credit
I recently interviewed a fascinating woman called Reine Prat, who wrote a book about the glass ceiling in the world of fine arts. She sees the figure of the artist as a largely deleterious historical construct. (The interview is in French: Le plafond de verre de la culture.)
In theatre, opera and film, the works are collective (in German, they are called Gesamtkunstwerke, i.e. “total” works of art that combine different sorts of crafts and arts), yet it is individuals (disproportionately men) who claim authorship.
In fact, the title of author – which generates special rights, both tangible and intangible – as well as the title of creator – a symbolic recognition that also allows access to the management of certain institutions – are reserved to the few. (Reine Prat)
In French cinema for example, the director is generally seen as the author (the main artist). Reine is convinced the preeminence of that particular role is arbitrary: “Everybody knows that the film is made by the editor at least as much as by the director; this was theorised in particular by Sergei Eisenstein, who was also the editor of his films”.
In other words, the way recognition and prestige are shared is largely arbitrary. It reflects coalition of interests and the domination of a certain class of individuals. It has little to do with the creation itself, whose profoundly collective nature should make it impossible for a few individuals to take all the artistic credit.
What Reine said about artists can be compared to what is said about the leadership and vision of entrepreneurs, also overwhelmingly male. How many women are referred to as geniuses in the corporate world? Who are the female equivalents of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk? How many leaders described as charismatic aren’t white men? In companies, too, most projects are collective, but most of the credit is often attributed to a few individuals... who tend to be always the same.
The distinction between the artist and the man: a French exception
Last but not least, there’s a distinction made in France between the artist and the man. For example, Roman Polanski the man may be a convicted rapist, but his films are seen as so artistic that the artist should be given a pass and supported. Likewise, Bertrand Cantat the man may have murdered his (female) companion Marie Trintignant, but his art (he’s a singer) shouldn’t be punished for it.
I have no example of a female rapist or murderer whose art is given a pass. There are several reasons for this: there are fewer female murderers and rapists, and fewer women are allowed to climb up the hierarchy of artistic prestige. But if there were non-male artists who did commit heinous acts, I’m quite sure they wouldn’t be granted the same leniency.
In the art world as in the corporate world, the “double standard” is all too common. It means that the same toxic behaviour is judged much more severely in a woman (whose work is inseparable from her person) than in a man. A female manager who doesn't listen to her team seems unacceptable, while a male manager who doesn't listen to his team would be more easily excused by his exceptional vision.
This exemption from common law, which is the responsibility of the police and the judiciary, is coupled with a persistence that is specific to the world of the arts, to reward, glorify and publicly pay homage to the individual offender because it is the artist and not the man who is thus distinguished. (Reine Prat)
I tried to tell Reine that this exception is really quite common in the corporate world too. Stanford Professor Robert Sutton wrote a whole book about it 15 years ago, The No-Asshole Rule, in which he explained that “bullying behaviour in the workplace worsens morale and productivity” and suggested a rule to screen out the toxic staff (the ‘no asshole rule’). He insisted that the word asshole was more powerful because “there's an emotional reaction to a dirty title. You have a choice between being offensive and being ignored”.
But managers and HR people are often so dazzled by the talent of these asshole/artists that their behaviour often never gets punished. I’ve personally heard many managers celebrate their superstar employees. And I always get suspicious when I hear that word: does it mean they’ll be willing to forgive them for toxic behaviour? Don’t they know that the talent of an asshole (let’s assume some assholes really do have talent) never outweighs the negative externalities on the rest of the team?
Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee, illustrated this incredibly well in a blog post that caused a stir in 2017, in which she recounted how no HR manager listened to her complaints about harassing colleagues, blinded as they were by the ‘star’ status of the engineers she singled out. They, too, wanted to separate the artist (computer scientist in this case) from the man.
I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on – unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part. (Susan Fowler)
It is quite absurd when you think of it to try and separate human qualities from professional qualities. (This speech by actress Blanche Gardin never gets old). As Reine explains in her book. One should question the very idea of meritocracy that is at the heart of this distinction:
Invoking talent, excellence, or even merit, as the only selection criteria is the unsurpassable argument for any judgment (…) In fact, it is the recognition of peers that sustains the said judgment. Peers means ‘equals’ and therefore ‘similar’. The non-similar (...) are excluded. (Reine Prat)
💪 I’ve had my first 2 articles (newsletters) published on Vives Media, a new media about women over 45 that focuses on money and work (in 🇫🇷): Je ne veux pas être une vieille pauvre & Télétravail : machine à café ou machine à laver ? I’m proud to be a part of this collective project with such inspiring people. Subscribe here and don’t miss the next issue! 🤗
🚀 Nicolas and I released several new Nouveau Départ podcasts (in 🇫🇷): Le plafond de verre de la culture, Meta ou le complexe de Dieu, Qui a peur des vieilles ?, Diversité en entreprise : progrès ou pas progrès ?, Immobilier et développement : leçons de Chine 🎧 Sign in on Substack.
👩💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: (in 🇫🇷) Quand Sex Education booste votre marque employeur en 5 leçons, Travail : quand le monde de la culture donne le mauvais exemple, Désolée mais vous vivez déjà dans "Squid Game", Télétravail : 4 bonnes idées venues du Portugal… To see all my articles, check my Welcome to the Jungle profile (also in English). It was great fun to write about Sex Education and Squid Games 📺 I’d love to create a series about the future of work as seen through the lens of pop culture. What do you think?
📺 My next “Café Freelance” event with Coworkees is about the solitude and isolation of freelancers. How do we create communities and work with others? How do we foster a sense of togetherness when we’re a company of one? 🇫🇷 Seul c’est bien, ensemble c’est mieux ! My panel will feature Hind Elidrissi & Jérémie David. Join us on November 26 at 9:30 CET!
🏢 What Bosses Really Think About the Future of the Office, David Gelles, The New York Times, November 2021: “Across the country, employers are struggling with how, when and even if they will bring employees back to the office. In conversations with leaders at companies in a broad variety of industries — the people charged with making the ultimate call — the consensus was that there was no consensus. C.E.O.s are struggling to balance rapidly shifting expectations with their own impulse to have the final word on how their companies run.”
🚌 Would You Manage 70 Children And A 15-Ton Vehicle For $18 An Hour?, Maggie Koerth, FiveThirtyEight, November 2021: “As the bus driver shortage continues, parents and drivers, often women on both sides, have been stretched to the breaking point as they try to do more with less — less time, less money, less help, less of a sense of safety and respect. “This problem existed before COVID, but nobody wanted to hear about it, especially the school districts” (…) There haven’t been enough school bus drivers nationwide for years. But it took a pandemic to make that shortage visible and painful to more than just the drivers themselves. ”
🧹 The Cinderella Myth We Can’t Quit, Rhonda Garelick, The New York Times, November 2021: “Centuries of fairy tales, novels and films have conditioned us to expect that the beautiful, downtrodden young woman will be saved — revealed as a secret princess, plucked from obscurity, rescued by a prince or, as with the more contemporary twist in “Maid” (spoiler alert): recognized for her writing talent and granted a college scholarship. It’s still the ancient Cinderella narrative baked into virtually all of women’s popular culture.”
Whether you’re on team artisan or team artist, hone your craft and stay humble! 🎨