Hi, Gang! Tomorrow, Claire and I are off to CRAFTCON (still places available, by the way) in San Francisco. In addition to presenting the Extreme Craft lecture, I'll be participating in a panel on the divide between traditional "fine craft" and newer "DIY craft".
The fine craft and indie craft worlds seem to be on opposite ends of thespectrum, one valuing mastery of material, the other valuing that certain ethic. But are they really that opposed? This session will explore the ranges of value on offer from both worlds, and how they can complement rather than compete with each other. What characterizes the extremes of craft? What does it say about craft that it takes on so many guises?
What follows is a rambling response to Emily Howes, who was kind enough to put the panel together. I would love it if you, my dear readers would chime in. You calling me on my bullshit will only help make the panel better.
I'm coming at this from a decidedly ceramic-centric point of view. A lot of what I have to say can be extended to the rest of the craft world, though. When we're thinking about studio craft (in America), it helps to outline the major booms in craft during the 20th Century. The Arts and Crafts movement peaked late in America--in the teens and 1920's. The next wave, as I see it, was the postwar wave that infused studio craft with fine art...The Black Mountain College is a great center point. The next wave during the late 60's and early 70's is the one that most closely mirrors today's craft explosion. Hobby craft, Hippie craft and fine craft all flowered. The "Objects U.S.A." exhibit made the case that studio craft qualified as fine art.
At the same time, the placement of the arts within academia began to bear fruit. The generation of studio crafters that learned their craft in an art school environment made weird and thoughtful work that crossed over into the "big boy" art world. The "Funk" ceramics movement played with the idea of craft and gleefully took the piss out of the "low" nature of art. As these artists continued their careers and dialog with the art world, their work gained breadth and depth. A great example is Ken Price, who started as a potter, but staged a conceptual museum show at the LA County Museum of Art. Another example would be Judy Chicago, who came at craft from the opposite side--grasping its significance and ideological possibilities. "The Dinner Party" is an example of an academically trained "fine" artist exploring "craft as idea". I would also include the Pattern and Decoration movement in this camp.
One of the signature exhibitions of the 80's was the "High & Low" show at the Pompidou Museum in . I can remember being fascinated by the wake that show left in the late 80's/early 90's. In the 80's/90's, all of the galleries and energies that came from the 60's/70's ossified into a system of galleries that comfortably dealt in fine craft to an affluent audience. As a student at art school in the early 90's, I looked around at all of the silk scarves, turquoise jewelry and shitty rainbow colored raku pottery in these galleries and instantly found something to rebel against.
As an art student, I sensed the "naughtiness" inherent in trying to put my ideas across with pottery. Sure, I could do an installation with sticks and unfired clay, but it felt dirtier somehow to make sloppy wheel-thrown teapots with cartoons on them. The world of pottery in the early 90's was filled with all sorts of rules and uptight "brown" potters that were incredibly fun to take stabs at.
I thought I was the only one.
Little did I know, there were PLENTY of others like me, making work that used the "trojan horse" of Craft to carry subversive content. The internet, of all things became the place where many of us found each other. Simultaneously, the "DIY Craft" movement started to provide fuel for the fire. Artists like myself who started out making subversive craft became known in their individual fields as well as the larger art world. Artists like myself have always felt as welcomed by the art world as they have the craft world. I have always felt as comfortable--more comfortable in fact, aiming my work at fine art galleries rather than craft galleries.
The current wave of craft artists are bored by the now antiquated idea of the fabled "line between art and craft". We make work from craft materials that is art because it is aimed at an art audience. Craft artists of the previous wave (in ceramics at least) tend to want all of the trappings of the art world while still aiming their work at craft galleries. I've heard many a ceramist complain about lack of attention and respect from the broader art world. They think that the Whitney is going to swoop down and buy up all of their work from Joe Bob's Mud Gallery and put it on display. Ceramic artists who have gotten attention from the art world--Ken Price, Betty Woodman, Robert Arneson, etc. all engaged the broader art world when building their career.
On the other side, there are plenty of non-academically trained craft artists who are making museum-worthy work. The internet provides a forum for crafters to keep raising the bar for ambitious and savvy work. There are plenty of "DIY Craft" artists who make work for craft fairs, but also make work aimed at galleries--or often non-commercial artwork that is subsidized by their more marketable craft fair work. No big whoop.
So what's happening now? Plenty of old-school studio crafters are by equal measures bitter and curious about the current wave of craft. They are circling the wagons to wall off subjects like fibers and functional pottery from the advancing tide of "mixed media". Judging from the number of "new craft" conferences sponsored by old guard institutions like the American Craft Council, the established craft world knows which way the wind is blowing, and are anxious to work with (and profit from) DIY Craft.
What can be done to bring DIY crafters and old-school studio crafters together? We need to realize that old-school "fine craft" studio artists put a huge premium on craftsmanship. Their self-esteem is related to their facility with (and relation to) their materials. DIY artists tend to be more concerned with concepts and their reasons for making craft. In the conversation on imogene.org following Bruce Metcalf and Andrew Wagner's talk at the SNAG conference, Tsia Carson called DIY crafters "thinly-veiled conceptual artists", a statement I tend to agree with.
People on both sides need to take a chill pill. The old schoolers need to realize that there will always be geeky technicians who will carry the basic skills of handicraft forward. Every ceramics class has a student lost in glaze exploration or folk pottery forms. Craftsmanship is something that evolves from a lifetime of working with one's hands. Sure, plenty of DIY crafters are rolling up their sleeves and digging into techniques that may have taken people years to learn in the past. Those same people are integrating technology or even using technology as a (gasp) shortcut. be an anathema to the old school, but they need to realize that the current wave of craft will lift everybody's boat. The more people that start out buying handmade sushi barrettes at a craft fair, the more people that will continue buying handmade through the rest of their life--perhaps even the odd turned walnut bowl or piece of turquoise jewelry.
At the moment, DIY Crafters tend to clamor for "theory". Theory is sexy. There are some insanely smart and savvy people in the craft community, and many seem to be waiting for the next Foucault or Baudrillard to create a unification theory of craft to move everyone forward. Theory has its place, but I would counter that Craft needs to embrace Art History as never before. Craft history tends to exist in a "decorative arts" ghetto that I think will look increasingly irrelevant in ten or fifteen years. When Craft artists broaden their knowledge of the past (which is only natural), their work becomes deeper, weaving itself into the continuum of craft history.
DIY Crafters are already incredibly savvy about branding and marketing. This tendency makes it unlikely that the movement will be co-opted and swallowed whole by the Martha Stewarts and American Craft Councils of the world. CraftCon is a huge part of the solution. As handmade continues to grow, artists who use Craft as their metaphor will only gain currency in the art world. Just remember, we'll be the old dudes soon enough. The DIY movement will certainly be followed by a backlash that fetishizes the traditional. We'd all better start learning to love some brown pots, burled walnut bowls and turquoise jewelry.