Research point – Craft

This research point focuses on craft-based textiles. The course notes suggest that while boundaries are blurring in terms of material, technique, function and concept between craft and industry and between craft and fine art, “craft practitioners” continue to share a common goal – to produce one-off or small production run quality items – and craft-produced textiles continue to hold a place in our society.

This falls into an ongoing area of interest for me – what “craft” is and the implications – which actually makes responding to this research point difficult. I’m starting with a selection of uses of the word.

* Craft as cutesy decoration. Alexandra Lange recently wrote that “craft” as a word has lost all meaning. She refers to the TV show “Craft Wars” (I haven’t seen it here), where it seems people use perfectly good materials to make or alter objects to be neither beautiful nor useful, but cute. Martha Stewart is another name I associate with the dressup and kitsch end of craft (for example almost any link at http://www.marthastewart.com/crafts).

* Mancraft. This is where the alpha maker man, self-sufficient, resourceful and wise, designs and makes stuff. My source on this is Dr Sandra Alfoldy’s special design lecture at COFA, available for download at http://www.cofa.unsw.edu.au/events/cofa-talks/listen. Alfoldy suggests the mancraft phenomenon is a response to the economic collapse, links to sustainability, and gives the illusion of control in a chaotic world.

One could roughly group these first two as gendered variants sharing some values – homebuilding, control, bonding. Sandra Alfoldy’s lecture also introduced me to the term “compensatory consumption” which has been defined: “Compensatory consumption is engaged in whenever an individual feels a need, lack or desire which they cannot satisfy with a primary fulfilment so they seek and use an alternative means of fulfilment in its place.” (Woodruffe-Burton and Elliott, http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v32/acr_vol32_132.pdf). I can certainly recognise such behaviour at times in myself. From my current workplace, if I go out one door there’s a fabric and haberdashery store a few steps to the left, a stitching and knitting store a few steps to the right, and an art supplies store across the road. If I escape by the other door I’m safe unless I cross the road to the bookstore. It’s a dangerous area after a challenging work morning.

* “the craft” of something – the traditional techniques, design vocabulary, materials, natural constraints of a particular “discipline” or area of work. For an example of this usage in textiles see http://thetextileblog.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/franz-metzner-and-structure-of-carpet.html. Another craft (traditional skills and knowledge) area familiar to me is bellringing (for example see language in  http://www.bellringingfilm.com/). I’ve previously posted about the Gucci artisan corner (http://www.gucci.com/us/worldofgucci/articles/artisan-corner#1), celebrating fine traditional craftsmanship, and of course there are guilds such as the one I belong to, the Hand Weavers and Spinners Guild of NSW (http://nsweave.org.au/) (see my post https://fibresofbeing.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/preserving-crafts/ on 15 September 2011).

* A definition close to my own approach, by Max Fraser: “Contemporary craft need not be defined by genre, it can include a wide range of media, but whatever the medium, craft practice is at the core of the making process. It is a combination of hand, mind and eye – the technical mastery of tools, materials, aesthetic sensibility and design skills.” I particularly like this list of attributes of “…the more human centred definition of craft – where time, patience, evidence of hand skill, rarity, chance, snap decisions and risk of failure are all contributing factors to an object’s charm and value.” Interestingly Frasers’ essay “Lab Craft: 3 Digital Adventures in Contemporary Craft” (http://www.labcraft.org.uk/_downloads/Lab-Craft-galleryguide.pdf) is in the exhibition catalogue of a Crafts Council touring exhibition which displays the use of digital technology in craft. (Thanks to Cally for this reference).

* craft as something that isn’t art. My post about Glenn Adamson’s book discusses a prime example of this – https://fibresofbeing.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/reading-glenn-adamson-thinking-through-craft/ (6 July 2012). Avoiding a single clear definition, Adamson presents craft as a horizon to avant garde art. Adamson examines perspectives and implications of craft as Supplemental (not autonomous); Material (versus optical); Skilled (more complex, but perhaps beside the point in art); Pastoral (that is nostalgic and limiting creative freedom); Amateur. I think this has links to arguments in Elissa Auther’s work (see my blog post https://fibresofbeing.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/reading-elissa-auther-string-felt-thread/ – 26 May 2012). The label “craft” has been used as a negative, a way to exclude or diminish work, particularly that of women. Closer to home, at ATASDA (Australian Textile Arts & Surface Design Association), our Objectives start:

  • To promote, foster, develop & advance textile and fibre arts
  • To promote interaction and co-operation between textile artists and all artists using dyes, pigments, stitch and/or manipulative techniques for fibre and fabric decoration

(http://www.atasda.org.au/about.htm). The word “craft” is rarely heard at ATASDA. Generally when someone wants to introduce a new skill in their work they’ll talk about learning the rules so they can break them. It’s purpose that matters, not technique – or at least, only technique that is appropriate to the current purpose. I really like this approach, and enjoy the no barriers, no holds barred approach. That’s not to say that more traditional, beautiful, well-crafted work by members isn’t admired and celebrated, perhaps just being very clear that the kitsch end of craft is a long way away (unless we’re feeling ironic). To any friends from ATASDA who happen to read this, I hasten to say “my opinion only, of course” 🙂

* “Craft” has been used very broadly.  For example in “Making is Connecting: the social meaning of creativity, from DIV and knitting to YouTUbe and Web 2.0”, David Gauntlett explores the meaning of making and various philosophies of craft, from the skilled practice of a master woodcarver to traditional hobby crafting and on to trendy guerrilla crafts (knit-wrapped trees…). Gauntlett identifies an intrinsic human urge to make, and a joy experienced in making, whether that is handcrafts or well crafted computer code. He finds a connection between craft, creativity, our connection to each other and our entire culture, and ends the book with a vision for a political and social future where communities aren’t satisfied with consuming what is provided by “the system”, but take an active part in making the world their own.

* “Craft” can also be defined very narrowly. I’ve been reading “A theory of craft: function and aesthetic expression” by Howard Risatti for some time, but I’m struggling and haven’t got far. Risatti takes the definition of craft very seriously, as a necessary basis for developing a coherent critical theory. Rather than using materials, techniques or form to identify craft, Risatti focuses on purpose and function – so craft objects have functions of containing, covering and supporting. In this definition jewellery is an adornment, and cannot be a craft object. Surface decoration is not an intrinsic part of craft. Tools are not self-contained, having a further purpose and requiring energy input to make them work, so are not craft objects. By this logic, Risatti finds that cutlery cannot be classed as craft. I got as far as chapter 4, where Risatti argues that craft objects are made by tools, as extensions of the hands and reflecting their motions, but not by machines (page 51). Just a couple of pages earlier he had clarified that levers are machines, giving mechanical advantage and changing direction, distance and speed of energy. That’s where I’ve stopped. I think the vast majority of looms have levers of some kind raising shafts (backstrap, warp-weighted and a few other specific loom types being exceptions).  Woven textiles are definitely on Risatti’s list of craft objects (having the function of covering the body). I don’t know how he manages to reconcile this.

I’m continuing with other reading, but that’s enough to chew on for one post! Most of the above is actually off-topic for the question posed in the course notes – why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

Alfoldy, S. “Special Design Lecture: Mancraft”, recorded 9 May 2011. http://www.cofa.unsw.edu.au/events/cofa-talks/listen accessed 18 August 2012

Auther, E. (2009) String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

Fraser, M. “Lab Craft: 3 Digital Adventures in Contemporary Craft” (http://www.labcraft.org.uk/_downloads/Lab-Craft-galleryguide.pdf Accessed 18 August 2012

Gauntlett, D.  (2011) Making is Connecting: the social meaning of creativity, from DIV and knitting to YouTUbe and Web 2.0, Cambridge: Polity Press

Hopper, J. http://thetextileblog.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/franz-metzner-and-structure-of-carpet.html (accessed 18 May 2012)

Lange, A. “Don’t Put a Bird On It: Saving “Craft” from Cuteness”, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/08/dont-put-a-bird-on-it-saving-craft-from-cuteness.html#ixzz23Ys7RIqk Accessed 15 August 2012

Risatti, H. (2007) A theory of craft: function and aesthetic expression, The University of North Carolina Press

Woodruffe-Burton, H. and Elliott, R. “Compensatory Consumption and Narrative Identity Theory”, http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v32/acr_vol32_132.pdf accessed 18 August 2012

Other websites referenced:

http://www.atasda.org.au/about.htm

http://www.bellringingfilm.com/

http://www.gucci.com/us/worldofgucci/articles/artisan-corner#1

http://www.marthastewart.com/crafts

http://nsweave.org.au/

Relevant previous posts:

* Preserving crafts (16-Sept-2011).

* Reading – Elissa Auther: String Felt Thread (26-May-2012).

* Reading – Glenn Adamson: thinking through craft (6-July-2012).

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In Basketry NSW Transformation exhibition Sunday 2 July. More info fibresofbeing.wordpress.com

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