Art vs. Craft...Apparently an Ongoing Debate

As a former art student, I have a REALLY hard time referring to myself as an "artist" when it comes to decorating cakes. It's always seemed pretty pretentious to me.

I have no problem describing what I do when I pick up a paintbrush as art, but making a sugar flower doesn't rise to the bar of "art" in my mind for some reason. I find that's firmly planted in the "craft" category. I also knit and used to quilt, but I always think of those as crafts, too.

I did a quick online search and found that this is an ongoing debate, not only in the cake world, but in other areas where craft and artistry intersect. One article approaches it from the fiber arts perspective, and came up with some interesting points about crafting being perceived as more of a cut and stick approach. Art, by comparison, would be more of an organic creative process.

Someone also brings up the idea that art isn't necessarily useful, where craft generally refers to a useful object.

I find that when I'm doing display cakes where I have total freedom to design and execute the object with no rules, it feels like an artistic process. On the other hand, when I'm executing a specific design that someone has ordered I'm in the mindset of doing a craft. It's the lack of the ability to take a creative leap that prevents me from calling cake decorating an art.

I was talking to my husband about an interview that I'd seen with Todd Rundgren. Todd had said that he did music that pleased himself, and that if anyone else liked it then that was good, but it wasn't his main goal. My husband commented "He's a real artist."

Then there's this quote from a link I found on the article that I linked to above...This is from an interview with Gwendolyn McGee, who's a fiber artist:

Being on "the cutting edge" is not the focus for my work. My primary interest is in figuring out how I can best make a connection and have a meaningful dialogue with the viewer. To this end I am open to using any combination of techniques and materials, traditional or otherwise, that enables that to happen.

So her goal is to communicate with the viewer, rather than to be technically new and trendy.

Maybe that's what prevents me from seeing cake decorating as an art. A combination of the fact that the product is an item that's utilitarian at the end of the day, it's generally done in the framework of making the client happy, and it has a strict code of "rules" as can be seen on the judged cake decorating shows.

Whenever Stevie Famulari was on the cake challenges on Food Network, I had a great time watching. She's not a cake decorator, she's an environmental artist who happens to work with food. I don't know how she got involved in the whole challenge thing, but it was fun to watch a working artist try to do a challenge within the framework of cake decorating rules. She was obviously there for the creative process, and I found it amusing to see the reactions of people who didn't "get" her. Her well-documented feud with Kerry Vincent perfectly exemplified (to me at least) the fact that art and the rigid rules of what makes a "good" cake aren't necessarily compatible.

To me, that was an example of the art vs. craft mentalities coming to blows. The judges were insulted that she wouldn't stay within the structure of what was accepted in the world of cake craft, and she wouldn't bend from her artistic vision.

It's an interesting debate. I won't be referring to myself as a cake artist anytime soon, though. To me piping, pearls and gumpaste are a craft, not an art. How do you define what you do, and where is the line between art and craft in your opinion?

 Kara Buntin owns A Cake To Remember LLC in Richmond VA, and cake supplies online at and