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I’m DONE Defining Craft

I’m DONE Defining Craft

It may seem antithetical, but most of my continued craft education comes from my computer. Living in a rural place—Lewistown, Montana—I rely on my laptop as a portal to the world of craft, cultivated by those dedicated to the handmade and the authentic. Maybe it’s unsurprising, given the weight that social media has on our lives, but even I have to chuckle at the slight irony of craft’s ancient discourse of demonstration and “hands-on” knowledge co-located and dematerialized into a widespread, digital community. These days, it’s almost more common to discover a potter or weaver on Instagram than it is to stumble across their work out in the world. The same, it seems, is true of craft criticism.

Having left graduate school behind, it’s rare for me to encounter craft criticism in the wild; most craft news finds me by way of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Most recently, a friend pointed me to a relatively popular Facebook post from Bruce Metcalf that had attempted to (again) define craft. The results were mixed, unsurprising to those of us familiar with an Internet comment section.

Metcalf, an American Craft Council (ACC) Fellow, studio jeweller, and craft critic, wrote that he had been asked to define craft by the ACC, and wanted to offer the following definition, to Facebook and the Council, boldly articulating beforehand, “It’s a good one.” He wrote:

Craft is defined by a series of attributes. None are necessary, but the more you find in an object, the more craft it is. There is a center of craft, and a periphery. Both are valid.

Craft can be handmade, but does not have to be.
Craft can be made of traditional craft materials like clay or wood, but does not have to be.
Craft can be made using traditional craft techniques like weaving or glassblowing, but does not have to be.
Craft can use a traditional craft context, like the vessel or the garment, but does not have to.
Craft can address the history of craft itself, but does not have to.
Function is NOT an important attribute of craft. Those who think so, like Howard Risatti, are mistaken.[1]

More than 40 folks from across the world commented on Bruce’s feed to affirm, debate, and generally hand-wring about the definition of craft, offering credentials like MFAs, research in traditional methods, and common sense. And while 40 participants in a common thread may seem paltry, this post reflects a much larger feeling of anxiety around craft’s definition. Consider that “art vs craft” pulls up more than 43 million Google results, or that schools, museums, and workshops removed “craft” from their names in recent years, or that nearly every piece of craft writing in the last 100 years begins with a definition of the field. We are, clearly, concerned about the state of craft.

Metcalf’s post and subsequent comments were much more civil than the last Facebook craft debate I followed, a “calling out” of craftivism-coiner Betsy Greer by Julia Feliz for her complacency and complicity in the racist and non-intersectional history of craftivism.[2] While Metcalf’s conversants debated the role of function and skill in craft, Greer’s followers argued issues of privilege and accessibility. I delight in these charged Facebook threads, watching amateurs and professionals alike wade through the intricacies and complexities of defining a field as nebulous and fuzzy as “craft.”

This anxiety about the definition of craft, however, doesn’t stop at the screen. This is a debate nearing timeless in its continuity. Last September’s Writers Residency at the Canadian Craft Biennial (CCB) was no exception. As Studio editor Leopold Kowolik said to me the other day, “for craft people, [defining craft] is like talking about the weather.”

The CCB brought together six writers from across North America to converse and write during the two weeks surrounding the Canadian Craft Biennial. Each of us emerged from a different area of North American craft, from curatorial and collection-based expertise to the skillful construction of traditional furniture. My point is this: If the organizers of this residency were attempting to represent diversity in craft, many of craft’s varied facets were represented, from students to curators, to makers, to studio technicians.

One would think that, as a diverse group of writers amidst some of the best contemporary and historic craftwork at the Art Gallery of Burlington, we would have better things to do than hand-wring. But there we were: crammed into a minivan, lounging amidst the enviable collections of the Art Gallery of Burlington, or chatting over beer, craft’s definition an ever looming question; the seventh resident we hadn’t expected.

Some of us returned to craft objects, a concrete reassurance of our field and importance. Others, like resident Andrew Rabyniuk, seemed comfortable in murkiness and ambiguity. Recently, Andrew wrote to me, “I usually rely on a deliberately vague description of craft as comprising various materials, techniques of manufacture, and social practices.” And, as if anticipating the familiar echoes of craft-defining anxiety, he continued, “Such an open-ended definition can be troubling because it seems to eschew the question of definition altogether, but I hope it is seen as an inclusive, searching, unbounded and provocative opportunity to both assert and reject definitions as they come up.”

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I want to share in Andrew’s optimism that vagueness can result in creative and intellectual opportunity, but the fact remains: I’m exhausted. My time in graduate school, and my years of experience in the minefield of Internet craft have left me weary of over-explanation, of “common sense” and simplicity, of definitions altogether. These conversations, once stimulating and exciting, left me confused and frustrated. I left the Biennial feeling unsettled but stuck, too many definitions of craft bouncing around my head and preventing me from articulating a single opinion.

In all of this fretting over the definitions of craft, from Bruce Metcalf’s social media to Glenn Adamson’s goodbye to craft six years ago, there seems to be something missing.[3] These conversations now feel trite and hollow. A friend pointed out that within the Metcalf thread, the (mostly white) participants had offered no definition that considered gender, class, or race. And if they had, I would argue, these comments would have been greeted with the shaming that many found on Betsy Greer’s feed, a cry for craft’s egalitarian nature, that craft knew no bias, using craft’s universality as a shield of good intentions and low accountability.

Sentiments like these—that you know craft when you see it, that craft is accessible to all peoples and all cultures, that craft is democratic production, by and for the people—ignore the complexities of lived reality, of the roles that race, gender, and economy play in craft, particularly in the contemporary moment. Craft, like every other field, is vulnerable to abuses in power, subject to and complicit within the horrors of colonialism, the patriarchy, and the state; complicit in upholding neoliberal and nationalist ideals.

How meaningful can our making be, if it neglects contemporary political thought, or becomes stuck, spinning out in a rut of repetitive definition? What if, instead of perpetuating this anxiety around craft’s definition, we dedicated that same, rigorous, and purposeful energy toward the doing of craft, or toward examining the fringes and futures of our own discourse. Rather than ask what craft is, let’s ask what it can be.

So, I’m done defining craft. I’ve adopted a new stance where I consider all things to be, at some level, craft. I call the theory “flat craft,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Murukami’s postmodern “Superflat” art. Maybe craft is a series of attributes, or maybe it’s culturally decided, but I would argue that anything produced by humanity is craft. My commercially made sandals, local microbrews, and Toronto skyscrapers: all craft. Each object in human production may or may not be craft, it doesn’t matter. What matters is our consideration. If calling something “craft” enables us to better understand its production—from human labour to trade policy to environmental extraction—the term itself is useful. I’ll borrow from Bruce Metcalf one small phrase, “but does not have to be,” and move on, unburdened by what craft “should be.”

To me, “flat craft” is more useful than a rigid definition of craft, and that’s what definitions are for, to be useful. That’s why we continue to hand-wring, out of the hope that our next definition might be more useful to us than the one before. The use of the definition changes within historical contexts: the Arts and Crafts movement used a definition that was ideologically useful, much like the Bauhaus some years later. Sloppy craft and funk, Studio Potters movements and the Fibre Arts movement, each utilized a new definition of craft in order to necessarily broaden or widen the field, or to differentiate the new production from what came before. The DIY movement of the early 2000s redefined craft yet again, and new contexts will continue to arise and demand new definitions.

If definitions are culturally contingent, and if culture (and craft) will continue to change, what is the use of Bruce Metcalf[4] (or any of us, really) redefining craft? In this contemporary moment, where late capitalism, globalism, and populist politics collide amidst vast inequity, what does defining craft offer as a potential future, or as a potential solution? To me at least, it’s become increasingly clear that to make is a political act, as is the act of consumption. The craft economy remains wrapped up within the social issues it often claims to escape. The future of craft sits in the hands of the marginalized and the politicized, with those underrepresented in collections, museums, galleries, and schools. It sits at the intersection of race, class, and gender, where all production begins.

I’d like to consider the “craft” of my commercially-made sandals, because I’d like the same care and attention brought to the workers who made them, as is provided to the “studio craft” community.

As we marvel in the materiality of craft, I’d like to consider the extraction of craft materials from the earth, or the damage wrought on our climate.

I want to question the legends we promote, the idols we gild. I want the “craft” of unnamed women, people of colour, and our LGBTQ+ siblings to be held in esteem, to be considered valuable.

The time of hand-wringing and anxiety about the state of craft has passed. I’m done defining craft. It is a waste of my time to bemoan craft’s perceived marginalization or to return to the murky waters between art and craft. What craft needs, particularly from those in positions of privilege (like mine), is to MOVE ON, to address our contemporary moment in ways that are meaningful and potent.

With all the free time I have whilst not defining craft, I intend to use my platform to broaden, deepen, and challenge the field by uplifting the voices of makers who are doing craft, rather than defining it. Under flat craft (my cop-out non-definition), we can use craft to understand the digital world-building work of Skawennati or the performative sculpture of Cassils. We can highlight and uplift folks who use their production to do the political work that moves us forward. We can consider community organizing, traditional skills education, cooking, mending, and caretaking to be facets of craft, to be worthy of our hand-wringing and careful wording.

By not defining craft, the field becomes more interesting, nebulous, and broad, challenging our assumptions and widening our impact as a group. As North American makers and scholars, we can consider the craft and production in the global South to be as relevant as our own, removed from the excuse of “cultural specificity” and the “art versus craft” debate. By not defining craft, we can make it bigger, and wider; we can include more, and divide less. I’m done defining craft. Join me?

[1] https://www.facebook.com/bruce.metcalf.102/posts/10217078378657394
[2] The post has since been removed.
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcSQL0TPSHo
[4] I’d like to make clear that I make no issue with Metcalf’s definition. It necessarily widens the field and balances precision with ambiguity. My quibble comes with the time spent continuously defining a word as blurry as craft, rather than using that time to investigate craft itself. I realize how hypocritical this may sound, after spending nearly 2,000 words dedicated to the un-defining of the word craft. I’m grateful to Studio for the opportunity to follow this article with exemplary examples of craft in Canada, no definitions allowed.

This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2018-19 issue of Studio Magazine

Object Stories

Object Stories

Jake Whillans

Jake Whillans