When I was growing up amidst potters, carpenters, artists and furniture makers in 1970s and 1980s New Hampshire, the highlight of my summer was always the craft fairs my Mom organized. Running around with friends through the apple orchard, admiring the baskets and chairs and vases artisans displayed on their tables under the trees, feasting on handmade lollipops and bread and strawberry rhubarb pie–this was the essence of the good life to my young self, and I saved up money all summer to buy handmade stuffed animals and hand-printed stationary. This love stayed with me through college, where sections on the decorative arts were my favorite topic in art history classes. (Wherever that word went is another question.)
But somewhere along the way it seemed CRAFT became the object that dare not speak its name. I discovered this in 2005 when I opened Greenjeans, a gallery and shop for handmade work by independent artisans in Brooklyn, NY, a place dedicated to the spirit of Mom, who tragically had passed away the summer before. I knew people would respond, though. The power of beautifully handmade objects is great, no matter what you call it.
When you read the word “craft” what comes to mind? A finely hand-built Windsor chair? A sweatshirt adorned with glitter and glue? That great necklace you purchased from an indie jewelry maker, or the rugs your great aunt braided? Does the word “craft” make you think “pretty and smooth” or “brown and itchy?” Or something more along the lines of microbrewed beer?
THE PROBLEM WITH THE WORD “CRAFT”
Three years ago, I wrote a post on Greenjeans Blog asking if, from a marketing perspective, CRAFT is a dirty word. As a craft gallery owner and blogger on the scene, I was interested in reclaiming the word from its dusty fusty connotations and proving how relevant, valuable and even revolutionary craft really is. It was a tough sell then when it seemed like almost everyone had a gripe about the word, including makers, a surprising many of whom seemed to scorn being called an “artisan” or their work “handcraft.” Some institutions were changing their names at the advice of marketing consultants–the former “Museum of American Craft” became the Museum of Arts and Design, and today’s California College of the Arts was until 2003 “of Arts and Crafts.” This doesn’t mean they’ve stopped exhibiting or teaching craft, just distancing themselves from the connotations of “CRAFT.”
Likewise, to characterize your work as “craft” was perceived by many as woefully unsexy and irrelevant from a marketing and public opinion point of view–call it art, or better yet, design. (I might argue that the design boom of the 1990s was partly to do with hand-makers rebranding themselves as designers, and farming out fabrication as they grew. That, however, is a topic for another time.)
In October 2003, stalwart design magazine Metropolis asked, “When Did Craft Become a Dirty Word?” I was wondering the same thing. Craft is not a word you would see bandied about on the hallowed walls of MoMA, even though you will see a great deal of works that rely on craft techniques, processes, and materials on display in their “Architecture and Design” galleries. So why all this pooh-pooing of the word “CRAFT?” The word had become a verbal pariah with deep roots.
Then something started to happen. As the indie music and DIY movements gained momentum in the mid-aughts, a certain anti-consumerist taste for all things handmade began to take hold. Alternative craft fairs like the Renegade Craft Fair and Maker Faire were popping up around the country, craft magazines and websites launched connecting the community and offering open-source How To videos. Even wide-release movies (Juno, The Science of Sleep, Coraline) were plying hand-drawn animation and hand-built stop-action. Suddenly it was hip to be handmade. It was the moment for owls and hand-knit arm warmers, with great possibilities.
Today, while the global economic recession tarnishes the luster of spendy designer brands, the online craft marketplace Etsy, which launched in 2005, reportedly posted $100 million in sales in 2008 and the company is generating over $1 million per month in revenue. While established craft shows may not be keeping up with impressive sales numbers like these, many are working to adapt their models to embrace new ways of marketing craft. They better–this is the moment to engage the consumer hungry for something special, something local, something independently-made. Indie is fresh. All craft is indie. The vibe is epitomized by the title sequence for Faythe Levine’s documentary “Handmade Nation,” but can come from a handmade Windsor chair too.
As the vibe caught on, mainstream markets started to co-opt the handmade aesthetic in attempts to appeal to today’s consumers in increasingly ironic ways. You see it all the time. Crate and Barrel and Ikea offering ceramics that appear hand-wrought but are mass-produced from molds. Appliqué details on clothing from Target imitating indie trends. Condos claiming hand-crafted details. Even television ads for cars where the handmade-ness is helped along by CGI. I call this “hand-washing” — like phony environmental claims are called green-washing–and have written about it a number of times on Greenjeans Blog.
Whether we’re talking a pale imitation or the real deal, there are no two ways about it: craftiness is definitely having a moment. But is “craft” still a dirty word?
PERSPECTIVES ON THE WORD
I recently asked people involved variously in the craft world what they think. Monica Hampton, Director of Education at the American Craft Council, writes, “The attention to where things come from, how they are made, the conditions under which they are made, and the traditions they represent are all tenets that are being upheld and honored more than ever in our society. For this reason, I think that craft is having a resurgence and moving, I feel, away from having bad connotations.”
Writer Lily Kane of the New York gallery R 20th Century, “The handmade, the remade, the renovated and remixed are increasingly vaulting over mass market disposables. People are increasingly tending to, as [mid-20th C. American designers] Charles and Ray Eames begged of us, ‘Think about things.’ They are starting to realize that CRAFT builds community, encourages people to interact with one another and sustains local economies.”
From her vantage point in Austin, jewelry maker Lisa Crowder acknowledges that, “There are definitely varying degrees of originality and craftsmanship in craft at the moment, but all in all ‘craft’ is no longer a dirty word.” Jewelry maker and educator Bruce Metcalf agrees: “Is craft a dirty word? Not when you have beer companies that advertise ‘hand-crafted’ beer and a philosopher who writes a book called The Craftsman.” Offering a west coast perspective, Rena Tom, owner of the design shop Rare Device, says, “Craft is not a dirty word here in San Francisco, possibly because we have a very widespread food culture and it’s often positively associated with artisan, small-batch beers, pork products, pickles and the like.”
Others disagree with my premise entirely. Andrew Wagner, editor of ReadyMade magazine, writes, “To me, craft has never been a dirty word. Craft is an amazingly malleable term which is precisely what makes it so exciting.” So agrees Danny Orendorff, Assistant Coordinator of the Renegade Craft Fair: “We here at Renegade have obviously never found ‘craft’ to be a dirty word and don’t necessarily see a sharp distinction between what may be considered a ‘craft’ or ‘art’ project/object…the intrigue and ambiguity around how to ‘classify’ these objects maybe helps keep them interesting.”
“Faux mass-produced craft (which is all the rage these days) is what I consider dirty,” writes Danielle Maveal of Etsy. “Products made under questionable working conditions that steal the ‘handmade’ aesthetic, devalue real craft.”
At the end of the day, the marketability of craft does all come down to perceived value, and the Very Esteemed Callie Janoff of the Church of Craft gets down to the dirty truth: “In art school I had a teacher tell me that I was making craft an issue in my artwork, and did I really want to do that? Craft was a dirty word for fine artists in the early nineties, but predictably what was dirty became evocative, and eventually blasé. By now I feel like the public culture beyond the art world is tuned in to issues around craft, even in superficial ways.”
While the art and design worlds may still be struggling to get their mouths around it, in terms of public perception and marketability “craft” is a word that seems to be on everybody’s lips these days. And why not? As I learned intuitively from my Mom and the hundreds of artists and artisans I have met throughout my life, craft is essentially and indelibly the root of art and design.
We may not be a handmade nation, but in an age when the U.S. hardly manufactures anything anymore, it’s a boon to our culture to embrace the relevance and desirability of, say it with me now, “CRAFT.” Now doesn’t that sound good?
Basking in Vermeer’s Light at Rijksmuseum
In Vermeer’s paintings, the world is much larger than we imagined and yet somehow deep, meaningful, and magical.
The Art World “Darling” Who Went Rogue
Joan Brown resented the easy commodification of her work, and the incessant demand for her to create something just so others could own it.
Tulsa Artist Fellowship Calls for Artists and Arts Workers of All Disciplines
Ten awardees will receive a total of more than $1.95 million in support and resources in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
How Anthony Daley Abstracts Rubens
In the work of Rubens, painter Anthony Daley finds correspondences of color that can carry expressive meanings abstractly.
Native Filmmakers Decolonize the Screen
“Only Indigenous voices can tell their stories with dimensionality, and the tools to make that happen are incredibly accessible,” says film director Christian Rozier.
Pedro Reyes Explores Disarmament in DIRECT ACTION at SITE Santa Fe
The Mexican artist confronts gun violence and nuclear power through sculpture, print, performance, and video work.
Netflix Forgot to Include Puerto Ricans in Production of Reggaeton Show
Critics say the new comedy series Neon was written, directed, and produced by non-Puerto Ricans.
It Was No Pearl Earring, Friends
The pearl earring in Johannes Vermeer’s famous masterpiece was likely a fake, researchers say.
Call for Applications: Inspiration Lab Artists-in-Residence at University of the Arts
Ten artists will receive studio space and access to faculty, staff, students, workshops, and programming at an arts institution in the heart of Philadelphia.
Hirshhorn’s New Reality Show Looks for America’s Next Top Artist
Seven artists will compete for a cash prize and a chance to exhibit their work at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.
Indiana School Catches Heat for Plan to Deaccession Works
Top museums organizations condemned the Brauer Museum of Art’s plan to sell major artworks to fund the construction of new dorms.
Onsite Gallery Presents more-than-human
The media artworks in this show at Toronto’s OCAD University tell a tale of symbiosis, intersections, and more-than-human relationality.
New Hampshire Bakery Sues Town to Save Pastries Mural
The fight over the mural, painted by high school students, evolved into a First Amendment case.
US Museums Reduce Emissions With Help From Frankenthaler Foundation
Art museums and schools are encouraged to apply for the grants.
Etsy is quite a phenomenon, not just for artisans but for fine artists as well. With 3.5 million viewers a month and growing faster than the retail behemoth QVC’s online audience, it offers a global viewership impossible to find in any local or struggling gallery.
Some of us are beginning to make a living on our art, once an impossible dream.
Regretfully, “craft” has been a dirty word for so long that many young artists neglect that aspect of making art objects. As a long-time museum/gallery director, I often received work by young artists that was so poorly made it was falling apart. I’d occasionally be forced, by the poor quality of construction, to refuse to exhibit work, and contacted the artist(s) (offering the options of repairing it or retrieving it), who disdained my complaint as pedestrian and ignorant about the concept of their work. Often their instructors also had no regard for craftsmanship in their own or their students’ work, and neglected to address that critical element in teaching. Their limited, snobbish perception of “craft” shot their work in the proverbial foot – what gallery/museum wants to damage its reputation by showing dismally made and thus inadequately realized art work?
As a fine artist making work which often utilises craft techniques, I sometimes come across prejudice from the contemporary art world but thankfully I think it’s starting to lessen. Conversely, I’ve never had any hassle from the online crafting community, who have always accepted my work with great enthusiasm. I think the two areas are gradually coming back together and intermixing and in the future it may become an increasingly irrelevant distinction.
Great article Amy (Francesco C. passed it on to me).
I do think there are still many people who think of craft as “dirty”, because it has been easier historically to position it that way. But, as an active participant in the craft scene over the last few years, I think there has been a realignment of craft at this point in time with art, DIY and design under a broader/more holistic category of creativity or aesthetics. It will be interesting to see how this current cohort of makers moves craft forward, particularly with the accessibility of online tools and technology in general. I also think it’s important to consider that craft is very much an integral part of people’s cultural and economic identity in other parts of the world; perhaps it would be worthwhile for us makers to look there for inspiration as well.
Comments are closed.