At one time the art world drew hard distinctions between the fine arts (painting, sculpture, works on paper) and crafts (ceramics, glass, wood, metal, and fiber). But in the last half century–since the founding of the American Craft Council, which is holding its 50th-anniversary celebration here this weekend–those distinctions have increasingly blurred.

Functionality has traditionally divided craft from art: craft items are typically things we can use–vessels, furniture, cutlery, apparel, jewelry–and fine art is something we admire hanging on a wall or perched on a pedestal. “Beauty” is another point of comparison: craft artists are sometimes disparaged as preoccupied with the beautiful, decorative side of their work. Perhaps a more valid distinction has to do with intent: craft artists generally set out to explore materials and process, whereas fine artists may be more concerned with ideas.

But a look at the exhibit “American Craft Council Gold Medal Recipients: 1975-1993,” at the Cultural Center, might change your mind about these “distinctions.” You’d probably feel comfortable drinking or eating out of Beatrice Wood’s luminously glazed ceramic vessels, but as curator Esther Saks points out, “Her vessels are wonderfully evocative and ritualistic,” with a symbolic value that transcends their decorative appearance. Lucy Lewis, a Native American ceramist, makes exquisite Acoma pots, but as Saks says, “They’re not meant to be decorative. She’s using them to refer to the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of vessels.” Metalworker John Prip’s oval jewelry boxes are formal exercises in shape, decoration, and utility. But an earlier series of what he calls “leaking boxes,” which seem to ooze liquefied metals, challenges our ideas of storage and containment.

Perhaps ceramist Peter Voulkos best exemplifies a fine-art approach to craft media: his work in clay parallels that of abstract expressionist painters, who broke with tradition by discarding narration, representation, and figuration to focus on the process of painting itself, investigating the basic qualities of paint and canvas, of brush strokes and spatterings. In the 1950s Voulkos similarly defied the conventions of traditional pottery: “He meant to elevate clay as a fine art medium,” Saks says, “to look at it as an expressionist statement and investigate the abstract nature of clay.” Voulkos also addresses the spirituality of objects, as Native Americans do, as well as approaching more intellectual issues. “He may start with a vessel form,” says Saks, “but asks questions like ‘What is a container?’ and ‘What do the external aspects of a piece tell you about what’s happening internally?'”

This weekend Chicago hosts a veritable feast of craft-related activities. The most accessible work can be seen at the Chicago International New Art Forms Exposition at Navy Pier October 7-10. Now in its eighth year, CINAFE features applied and decorative arts from 68 galleries in America, Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Germany, and Japan. Tickets are $7-$10; $20 for a three-day pass. Call 787-6858 for information.

“Tradition + Transition” is a symposium on fiber arts sponsored by the Textile Arts Centre, October 9 and 10 at the Congress Hotel, 520 S. Michigan. Call 929-5655. On October 8 the American Craft Council is offering its annual awards ceremony, a gala birthday celebration whose keynote speaker is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving. On October 9 there’s a symposium entitled “In Celebration of American Craft.” And there are two exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center: the second is “Selected Treasures From a Treasury of Canadian Craft,” a traveling version of a show mounted by the Canadian Craft Museum in Vancouver, making its only U.S. stop here; it’s open until October 24. “Gold Medal Recipients: 1975-1993” will be on view until October 17. Call 212-274-0630 for tickets to ACC events, and 346-3278 for information on the Cultural Center exhibits.