This is an edited version of the talk I gave at The Norfolk Makers Festival in February 2019.
It’s quite long and there aren’t any nice pictures.
A few months ago I passed a shop window display made up almost entirely of little pots of crocheted cacti – and this troubled me for the rest of the day. I kept wondering what the appeal of a crocheted cactus is, and why anyone would want to buy one.
After spending far too much time churning this over I decided that I understand completely why someone might feel the compulsion to make a crochet cactus. Spending time carefully making anything generates a host of feel good emotions; a sense of industry, the opportunity to slow down and engage in a rhythmical process, and the sense of pride and achievement in creating, and completing something. Anything.
I get all of that.
But if you like cacti why not just buy the plant? A cactus is naturally beautiful, it’s biodegradable and there’s lots of evidence that caring for a plant is good for your wellbeing. The crochet version, on the other hand is meaningless and will inevitably end up in landfill, languishing forever as a prickly reminder of our careless use of materials and transient relationships with objects.
For me the crochet cactus is a signifier that if we’re not very careful, and if we don’t take good care of our craft traditions, they are in danger of being reduced to the status of a throwaway curiosity.
CRAFT is a term that’s used very loosely these days, and it’s applied to so many different forms of making that I sense a confusion surrounding it. I wonder what defines it in the 21st Century, what it’s for, and why it exists at all in a culture pre-occupied with technology and life hacks.
The term CRAFT seems to mean so many different things I wonder if it’s possible to find any common ground, and a collective way forward.
Is there a common thread that binds the global creators of the objects at the Saatchi Gallery’s dedicated craft fair COLLECT with the domestic makers enjoying a crafternoon tea party in suburbia?
How are these things connected to the activities of the CRAFTIVIST who stitches words onto a green felt heart #fortheloveof, or the charity crafter who spends time crocheting forget- me-nots to raise awareness for Alzheimers.
On the surface these things seem unrelated, if not, poles apart. The economic systems we have in place in our modern culture make it difficult to measure the value of an experience, or activity, against the value of a commodity. It’s almost impossible to separate the notion of value from the object itself. The object is the value, and it’s much easier to fall back on familiar ways of thinking about objects rather than investing the time to look more closely, think more deeply and draw different, less superficial, conclusions.
The tensions between different types of making are fuelled by the distinction between the object in the context of the gallery space and act of making in a social context. Or, more specifically, it’s the tension between ART and CRAFT. Yep, it’s that old chestnut.
I was both a student and a teacher in the art schools of the late 20thand early 21thcentury and at that time these were the conversations that dominated. It was difficult then to carve out a credible identity as a craftsperson and the net result was a generation of incredibly skilled and brilliant crafters attempting to transition from the Craft Shop to the Gallery Space, elevating themselves from the status of maker to artist, and in the process a whole lot of not particularly good art was made.
In order to understand all of this it can be helpful to look back at how we got there and so here are a few highlights of what I see as being significant moments in time that have helped shape our contemporary craft culture.
I should make it clear that I’m pointing my spotlight very much on major events that have shaped craft practices in the West, primarily Europe and the UK because that’s where I live, and that where my personal experience has been.
In Western culture we haven’t always been so discriminating against our crafters.
Up until the Renaissance there was no distinction between ART and CRAFT. Painters, stonemasons, weavers and sculptors were all simply craftsmen, or women. They learned their skills as apprentices and passed on their traditions through guilds to the next generations.
Work was valued for its skill, beauty and how well it conformed to tradition, and the commissioner of the work was more likely to get the credit for it than the person that put in the hard graft making it.
By the 1400’s, and the birth of the Renaissance, Italians began to place more value on individual merit and in 1550 Georgio Vasari, an Italian painter, architect and writer published what is widely considered to be the first piece of Western academic art history writing entitled “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’.
(no crochet in this book)
The book firmly places these three skills in an elevated position over the more ‘decorative’ crafts and the authors of these types of work began to gain status as the distinction between ART and CRAFT grew and the arts experienced a ‘rebirth’ resulting in Vasari’s coining of the term ‘renaissance’.
The notion of rebirth, and innovation in the arts was very much a eurocentric invention as elsewhere in the world no such distinction was made. Most cultures outside of Europe continued to value tradition over innovation and functional objects continued to be the primary vehicles for creative expression
In Europe craft objects were made in traditional ways until the birth of the Industrial age in the 18th Century when hand tools began to be replaced by mechanical processes driven by innovations in the Textile Industry.
Mechanical production had an inevitable impact on the creators of handmade items as more and more products could be mass produced and were available to wider sections of society. The products of this new Industrial age were celebrated in the Great Exhibition of 1851at Crystal Palace but were condemned by an emerging collection of craft reformers who considered the mass produced items on display to be vulgar, poorly made and with no sense of beauty or aesthetics. The designer Owen Jones described the work on display as “novelty without beauty, or beauty without intelligence”
For me this statement is still relevant almost 170 years later.
These craft reformers were concerned more with utility and quality of craftsmanship than decoration and ornament, believing that utility should have precedence over ornamentation.
These ideas were further developed by three leading practitioners; William Morris, John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin who were passionate about how craft and design could be used as a means of social reform and who lead the Arts and Crafts Movement. They identified links between the moral and social health of the nation to the qualities of its architecture, interior design and the nature of work its citizens were engaged in. They believed that workers who were engaged in carefully making their own products by hand would lead not only to better made, more meaningful, products but also to a more meaningful life.
Morris wrote “Without dignified, creative human occupation people become disconnected from life”
The reformers of the 19th Century weren’t looking for technical innovation to improve lives, but looking to tradition to enrich not just individual lives, but the lives of everyone in society.
The idea of generating social reform through better, and more meaningful design was also on the minds of the Modernists in the early 20th Century who equally loathed the popular decorative arts of the Victorian era and the ‘trinkets’ of the Art Nouveau period.
The Modernists went even further in their condemnation of the decorative arts equating decoration with delinquency and criminality. The Austrian architect Adolf Loos published a manifesto called ‘Ornament and Crime’ in which he made connections between decoration and cultural evolution.
The sentiment behind this essay is shockingly racist and patriarchal, but it does help to explain the continued exclusivity of the arts in general throughout the 20thcentury.
Loos did, however, express one essential theory that I believe has stood the test of time and is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago and that’s the notion that any kind of waste is a criminal activity. Whether it’s the application of unnecessary decoration, the excessive and wasteful use of materials, or the careless use of our most precious commodity– time.
We often don’t realise the true value of this precious raw material until it’s too late. It’s the one thing that we simply can’t buy more of and why I now refuse to spend time making anything that I do not genuinely believe deserves to exist in the world.
By the 1920’s the German school of Bauhaus had emerged with an intention to close the divisions between art, craft and technology and had a similar vision to the early craft reformers and Modernists in the way they believed that good design can improve people’s lives.
The reality was that eventually the school fell into the conventional distinctions between art and craft and the women were generally found in the weaving workshops. These Bauhaus weavers made a huge impact on textile design throughout the 20th Century although it took until 2018 for Annie Albers to gain the recognition she deserves for her contribution to art and design when her work was exhibited at the Tate Modern.
The work received fabulous reviews and was extremely well received by the Art community, but just as a foot note I would also add that in most of the literature surrounding this exhibition the C word was conspicuously absent.
LATE 20THCENTURY: THE TENSION BETWEEN ART AND CRAFT
And so (if you’re still with me) I’ll fast forward to the end of the 20thcentury. The 1990’s witnessed a period of increased tension between art and craft and as mentioned previously, there was a migration of craft practitioners into the gallery space and craft began to be viewed through the lens of the artist.
Some artists did this extremely well, and successfully fused notions of making, cultural identity, and conceptual, fine art practices.
The artist Yinka Shonibare for instance used Dutch batik fabrics as a vehicle for exploring cultural authenticity, colonialism and class systems and in 2003 Grayson Perry won the Turner prize with his ceramic pots that explore deeply troubling subjects such as pornography and child abuse.
By the beginning of the 21st Century craft was becoming acceptable in the gallery space, but perhaps only if it promised not to talk about the CRAFT, the method, the materials, the processes and the traditions of the past.
So here we are in 2019 and what does the CRAFT terrain look like now?
As I look around at the broad spectrum of individuals currently engaging in craft activities it seems to me that the question is no longer about what we make (is it ART or CRAFT?), but more importantly why we make.
Generally I think questions that start with why yield the most interesting answers and so I’m going to highlight some contemporary practices that I believe point the way forward to an exciting future for the crafts; a future where the reasons why we make are as important as the objects that we make.
The Craft Fair COLLECT held by the Crafts Council at the Saatchi Gallery in London showcases the best of International Makers who are demonstrating how art, design and craft can inform each other intelligently rather than compete against each other.
Students currently emerging from craft courses have global influences, they come from all over the world bringing with them their own traditions ensuring the craft work is made with authenticity and no longer conforms to narrow Eurocentric stereotypes.
Just as the discerning shopper looks for locally grown food with provenance, the craft collector is looking for quality handmade items with authenticity and provenance – whether it is functional or simply decorative is no longer relevant.
By upholding these high standards the Crafts Council is helping to ensure our craft traditions continue to flourish and develop in exciting and intelligent ways, and also preserving the identity of CRAFT for future generations.
FINE CELL WORK.
Fine Cell Work is a charity training people to do highly skilled creative needlework during the long hours spent in their prison cells. They facilitate the production of beautiful handmade products in British prisons and the teaching of high-quality needlework has been found to boost prisoners self-worth, instil self-discipline, foster hope and encourage them to lead independent, crime-free lives.
Fine Cell work currently works in 32 British prisons, engages with over 500 prisoners each year and has the largest workforce of hand-stitchers in Europe.
The Craftivist Collective was created by the British activist Sarah Corbett– and is committed to using thoughtful, beautiful crafted works to encourage others be the positive change they wish to see in the world.
The term Craftivism was coined by the American writer and Crafter Betsy Greer in 2003 but Sarah Corbett has taken ownership of the word and the craftivist collective now has thousands of members.
It’s methods of using craft as a tool for activism or protest has many precedents including the Aids Quilts made in the 1980’s and 90’s and the small stitched Arpilleras made by Chilean and Peruvian women in protest against, and to tell the story of, the disappearance of their men under the Pinochet regime. These small stitched works held so much power they were used by Amnesty International as documentary evidence against what was happening in the country.
So what is the common thread that connects these makers, activists, theorists and crafters in the 21stcentury?
In this digital age many of our interactions are remote, virtual and often fairly superficial and I believe people are actively seeking out an emotional connectedness with the objects in their lives and looking for objects with inherent poetry and soul.
So, here’s a call to action:
For everyone engaged in making, at whatever level, I would urge you to stop for a just a minute and ask yourself why you make.
Try to work out why you want to bring something into the world, and then do the absolute best you can to create something that deserves that place – after all, if we want to live in a world that is beautiful, sustainable and meaningful– shouldn’t the things we bring into that world be equally so?