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Making trouble? Craft values and the new capitalism

Updated Wednesday 2nd April 2008

Could a revival of craft be the perfect antidote to an art scene which has come to a comfortable acceptance of radicalism?

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In the world of art and cultural production the idea of craft retains a low status. Indeed, specific skilled crafts such as pottery, needlework, woodworking, jewellery-making and so on have long been contrasted unfavourably with fine art but also with conceptual art - the art of the radical avant-garde.

Indeed, craft has long been seen as functional and utilitarian - a kind of 'wholemeal' art; i.e. something that is admirable and good for you - but not especially exciting.

The craft historian Peter Dormer argued that this attitude stemmed from the Modernist separation of 'having ideas' from 'making objects'. So, for example, after 1917, once Marcel Duchamp has exhibited his selected 'readymades' (urinals, bottle-racks, bicycle wheels and the like) he created the possibility of art without craft.

It then became common to think that using skills to make things somehow detracted from the purity of 'higher' conceptual thought.

So in modern societies, while the term 'artist' still carries some glimmering traces of romance, glamour and intellectual superiority, to declare that you are a 'craftsman' (or craftswoman) conjures up some distinctly unglamorous images of dusty workshops, parochialism and practicality – not to mention chunky knitwear and country fairs.

But craft is not just about 'making objects'. It is also concerned with a particular philosophical approach embodied and expressed in one's work - any kind of work, not just pottery, basket-making and the like.

Paramount here is the idea that 'craft work' should be based on the possession of distinctive learned skills, rooted in a respect for tradition, and operate through a creative convergence (rather than a separation) of mind and body.

This is argued in Richard Sennett's recent (and highly readable) book The Craftsman where he also argues that craft focuses on 'objective standards' on 'good work for its own sake' and is always 'quality-driven'. Craft-based work is also locally controllable in terms of pace and quality, and so represents what sociologists often term 'non-alienated labour'.

But while craft has many recognised virtues, being 'radical' isn't usually one of them. Indeed we only think of art as being a threat to the 'establishment' because it is based on extrovert creativity, self-expressivity and rule-breaking – whereas craft is seen as more introvert, obedient and passive. But maybe there has been a reversal of these critical positions.

Mexican craft skulls Creative commons image Icon gruntzooki under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Mexican craft skulls.

Firstly, as many critics are now arguing, the world of work has itself become more 'art-like' in so far as it is more premised on rule-breaking, visionary intuition, self-expression and creativity.

Furthermore, the individualization of work, realised in the promotion of personalized contracts, performances, tests and rewards, the promotion of 'portfolio-working', the ethic of self-responsibility and so on is designed to appeal (like art) to our desires for self-evaluation and individual expression.

If this is the case then the 'radical' credentials of art looks a lot less secure – art work becomes indistinguishable from any other kind of work – its values seamlessly absorbed into the mainstream.

Secondly, while the market now appears happy to accept any kind of art production that is premised on a commitment to radicalism, rule-breaking and newness (think of 1960s Situationism, Sex Pistols, culture-jamming, Damien Hirst, Banksy) it is maybe less happy to tolerate a commitment to craft.

Which is not to say that craft is not commodified, or that craft objects are not sold, or that high craftsmanship does not sell in elite markets, but rather to suggest that when craft is considered as a political value, as a critical approach to the world, it can exert significant friction and drag on market relations. Craft work of this nature is slow, methodical and historically-orientated.

How do societies work? Find out with introducing the social sciences.

It is a world of quality-driven and communitarian production (think of the LINUX system, the Fence Collective or the Ultimate Holding Company). It appears to wrinkle its brow at the needy demands of fast capitalism and does not present itself for easy commodification – it is stubborn, phlegmatic and inward-looking. It also appears to contradict the incessant demands of the 'new' economy for upbeat 'creative individualism' – valuing anonymity and obedience, disavowing celebrity, and privileging versioning over originality.

In 1892 in The Claims of Decorative Art, Walter Crane called craft 'a protest against the domination of our modern commercial and industrial system of production for profit' – could it still be so?

At a time when appeals to radical aspects of art appear ambiguous and uncertain, could a revived politics of craft provide a counterweight to some of the instrumentalizing and desocializing demands of the new economy?

 

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