The answer gets even hazier when the object in question is utilitarian. Somehow it seems that as soon as something serves a purpose beyond being aesthetically pleasing or socially challenging, it gets dumped into the "craft" category and relegated to a lesser status.
But take a moment to think about fly fishing. In the hands of a master, the act of sending a fishing line through the air in graceful arcs and swirls from the end of a long, whippy pole to land gently on the water is referred to as artistry.
Now, look closer at what's at the end of that line: the artificial fly.
In the skilled hands of a fly tier, bits of hair, feathers, fabric and thread are transformed into lifelike homages to native insects. The best tiers spend years perfecting their skills, devoting hours to observing what happens in the natural world, as well as the intricacies of each species in an effort to create the most realistic flies possible.
Some flies sport flashes of red, some are marked by texture or mottled patterns of brown, others dazzle the eye with bold color and shine. But unlike other forms of art, their only display case will be in the tiny, divided nooks of a flybox, a hatband or maybe the front breast of a fishing vest. Their greatest critic is the fish, which decides whether the creation looks good enough to eat.
Boise's own bastion of fine art, the Boise Art Museum, is throwing its clout behind the idea that fly tying is, in fact, art.
"Truly, it's an art," said Sandy Harthorn, curator of art at BAM. "What they do is extremely complex, and some aspects of fly tying—creating the reality of some of the flies—[is] quite beautiful."
To prove the point, BAM is teaming with Boise Valley Fly Fishermen to give the public the chance to judge for themselves with an afternoon of fly tying demonstrations at the museum.
From noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25, BVFF members will demonstrate the artistry and precision needed to create the vast array of flies anglers depend on.
The event is in conjunction with one of BAM's current exhibitions, "Charles Lindsay: Upstream, Fly Fishing in the American West," featuring 25 silver gelatin photographs, some of which were taken in Central Idaho.
"The show is really about the experience and the sensitivity that one has in the activity of fly fishing," Harthorn said.
Lindsay's work is known for its focus on showing the connection between man and nature—an inherent part of fly fishing.
The demonstrations are free with the price of admission, $5 general, $3 for seniors age 62 and older and full-time students, $2 for children in first through 12th grades and free for members and children under 6.
While there, kids are invited to join a hands-on art workshop anytime between noon and 3 p.m. as part of Family Art Saturday. Participants can use charcoal to create drawings inspired by Lindsay's photographs.
The exhibit will hang through Nov. 9, but the art can always be glimpsed free of charge; Just head down to the river early one morning and take in a different kind of exhibition.