Feminine Expressions: The Art/Craft Complex

Frances (Budden) Phoenix, Get your abortion laws off our bodies 1980. Collection of the Estate of the artist

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Key Idea

There is a history of women’s creative expression being confined to what is termed the ‘decorative arts’, defined as art that is both beautiful and useful. Examples include tableware, furniture, textiles, crochet, and china painting. As they are the result of manual skills learned to a high level, decorative arts are synonymous with craft. Fine art, by contrast, is defined by having no use value, and is intended to be experienced on purely aesthetic, emotional or conceptual levels. Examples of traditional fine art expressions include sculpture, drawing and painting, and contemporary expressions include video art, installation and performance.

Traditionally, a cultural hierarchy has existed where the decorative arts are considered subordinate to, and of less artistic value, than the fine arts. In the decorative arts, the artistic element is an enhancement of a utilitarian object (e.g. a beautifully painted teapot), whereas in fine art the creative content stands alone (e.g. an intriguing or beautiful painting or neon). This hierarchical distinction is based around the (incorrect) idea that craft necessarily is less inspired or intellectually engaged than fine art. Historically, women were, bar a few exceptions, kept out of fine art academies. This resulted in women not getting the opportunity to learn the ideas and techniques related to fine art, instead only being given the opportunity to learn the craft skills of decorative arts. This discrimination resulted in decorative arts becoming synonymous with feminine, or women’s, creative expression.

As decorative art was in a low position on the cultural hierarchy, and women were confined to the production of decorative art, women’s creativity was largely confined to a lower position within culture than that of men. This persists in culture today, though to an arguably lesser degree. In this way we can understand how female artists were systematically oppressed by being made to channel their creativity solely through decorative, craft-based expressions.

Key Definitions

Feminine: Having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.[1]

Art: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.[2]

Historical Touchpoints

Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green 1927/28
Eva Hesse, Metronomic Irregularity II 1966


  • Pick a craft that you would like to learn some basic skills in – it could be sewing, knitting, weaving or carving – and find someone who can teach you. Challenge yourself to ignore any gender associations that you might associate with each craft, just ask yourself what are your personal interests and follow them.
  • What makes an artwork feminine or masculine? Find four images of abstract paintings, a combination of male, female or non-binary artists and share. Ask others what gender they think the artist is and why.
  • Discuss subversion in art. This can be based around Frances Phoenix’s subversions of traditional doilies into politically loaded artworks. What happens when something polite, traditional and modest, like a handmade doily, is subverted to deliver a strong message. Does the message become more powerful?


[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/feminine

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/art

[3] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/craft

Craft: Skill and experience, especially in relation to making objects; or something produced using skill and experience. E.g. Sewing, glassblowing, carpentry.[3]

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