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Moving Beyond a Modern Craft: Thoughts on White Entitlement and Cultural Appropriation in Professional Craft in Canada

Moving Beyond a Modern Craft: Thoughts on White Entitlement and Cultural Appropriation in Professional Craft in Canada

Flying over the city of Mumbai, India. Photo Christine Pemberton

Flying over the city of Mumbai, India. Photo Christine Pemberton

Theoretical and historical writing on craft—especially the writing that frames much of the modern craft that is popular today—makes me feel uneasy, as though I am subject to gaslighting. Gaslighting: where experiences and observations of something problematic are ignored, and everyone around you acts as if nothing is out of the ordinary, that it’s okay, that you are over-reacting, being too sensitive, or making it up. The problematic thing is thus normalized as the status quo, and you end up disassociated from yourself and your perceptions of what is real and true.

I have been experiencing this cognitive dissonance in relation to western craft for the last ten years. I have felt uncomfortable with the continuing centrality of modernism as European and North American craft’s primary historical and theoretical framework. While some sociologists and material culturists have approached craft through the critical lenses of other disciplines, I am troubled by the lack of thorough critical analysis in the discussions that frame the production and consumption of western craft, as well as its histories and theories. Missing for me are analyses that investigate the intersections of the craftsperson’s identity (gender, race, economic privilege or deprivation, geographic location, and so on) as well as the social, economic, political, and ideological circumstances of craft’s creation and its appreciation and consumption.

In my own research I have shown that women’s creativity—painting and sculpture, but also more ubiquitous forms such as needle-working and textiles production, paper crafts, and ornamental handicrafts—has been historically undervalued, and therefore undocumented and then omitted from modernist canons of artistic importance. Modernism describes a period of cultural production that started in the mid-nineteenth century where artists, writers, musicians and other makers moved away from attempting to achieve traditional grandiosity, instead focusing on documenting the transformative effects of modernization on the world around them. Art history, as a modernist project, provided a singular, cohesive and comprehensible story of western culture from ancient times to the present. Art history is the story of individualistic genius and a biased narrative structured around the Enlightenment propensity for chronicling progress—constant innovation in aesthetics, design, and material mastery. Only the best enters the hallowed canon of art. Only those who have been able to access the best education via the (up until the twentieth century) race- and gender-segregated spaces of arts academies learned to make the art that was celebrated in the salons and princely collections that later defined universal survey museums and the art historical account that was devised to validate and explain those spaces and their collections. This meant that art history became the story of white, male genius, interrupted infrequently by tokenistic exceptions of white women such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, or Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. The creative production of non-western people was allowed contingent admission only when it appeared in the appropriated form of Orientalist and later Primitivist work of European and American artists.

This history is important to the craft discussed in these pages because, unlike the discipline of art history, wholesale craft history and its theories have not experienced the shakedown that art history experienced beginning in the 1960s through feminist, post-colonial, and Marxist critiques that decentred the masculinity, euro-centricity, whiteness, and elitism of art production and consumption. By and large, critical assessments of craft have been conducted primarily under the umbrella of other fields of study such as anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and literary and communication studies to name a few.

However, dominant writing on craft today, especially for gallery systems and craft councils, still centres on the conceptual and material mastery of the craftsperson as a feat of individual genius. Genius, after all, is an illusory term that positions a master maker as a singular entity, completely obfuscating all the collective labour and energy that goes into making the materials they use and how they access those materials, the administrative labour that goes into documenting and presenting their work for display, and the critical and scholarly work that positions the maker and their work as remarkable within a larger cultural context, not to mention commercial markets and academic arenas that shore up the work and legitimate it. Up until recently, a very limited demographic has had the means and privilege to access the spaces and participate in the discussions that denote a genius.

Canadian craft culture’s celebration of the individual genius relies on unequal and biased systems of valuation and influence, historically championing the work of a select few according to a narrow modernist criterion of excellence. This was a criterion which functioned to gatekeep and exclude craft objects and practices that did not fit with a materially and conceptually restricted program, for example, craft made by non-western people, indigenous makers, naïve folk art by rural and oftentimes impoverished craftspeople, and women’s domestic handicrafts made from patterns and kits. Modern craft as a category of production and appreciation functioned through the enforcement of taste and strong ideas about good design, material quality, and manufacture.

Now consider that by and large Canada’s professional craft community is made up of working- and middle-class white people (with ‘professional’ I am referring to those who can support themselves in part or in whole through making craft). This demographic reality occurs as a result of institutions such as craft councils, federal and provincial funding bodies, and commercial and non-commercial galleries requiring specialized education, training, or apprenticeships—something which requires a certain level of material stability that elides many racialized people and poor people caught at the intersection of systemic racism and economic deprivation. What occurs in Canada, as elsewhere in the west, is that many professional craftspeople borrow superficial design and material components from non-western craft to the benefit of their objects—making more aesthetically pleasing craft, more structurally and technically sophisticated craft, or basing their craft’s conceptual framework on a borrowed history or myth. Studio craftspeople benefit materially and professionally from these appropriations, while the racialized, poor, and amateur craftspeople whose designs and methods they’ve appropriated continue to work and live in deprivation on the margins. The western craftsperson will be treated as the master of these motifs, designs, and innovations, without any compensation or redistribution of resources to the source of those inventions.

Many white practicing professional and academic craftspeople in Canada give talks sharing stories of their research visits to the indigo dye pits in Kofar Mata, to Panama to live among the Kuna and observe the making of intricately appliquéd Molas, to Icheon to study Joseon porcelain, or to workshops in Jaipur to learn about the Kundan method of setting gemstones into enamelled gold. I understand the importance of knowing a craft’s traditions and developments in order to better engage with materials and construct forms. However, I feel troubled by the borrowing (appropriation) of culturally specific patterns, motifs, designs, materials, and techniques by white craft practitioners, without any sensitivity to the unequal power dynamics at play.

I hear students in my ‘Global Textiles’ and ‘Craft, Culture, and Identity’ courses articulate confusion and uncertainty when I discuss instances of historical and contemporary cultural appropriation and issues of intellectual property theft. In class discussions they tell me that they learn to study the craft production of non-western societies for inspiration, to learn techniques and material practices that they can “add to their toolbox.” As if the social specificity of non-western and non-modernist craft production—the ancestral traditions; the rituals tied to generations and the land, plants and animals; the spiritual and cultural significance of materials and designs; the geographic locations; the histories of trade, commerce, and labour; the meaning found in use and function—can be stripped away for the purpose of borrowing aesthetics, designs, materials, or techniques for superficial use. To be clear, this superficial appropriation is a form of cultural violence that has been one of the key characteristics of western cultural modernism since the Enlightenment over the last half-century. It is implicated in an elitist cultural program that continues to subordinate and erase the production of poor people and/or women. It is implicated in historical processes of European colonial expansion, settlement, assimilation, and genocide. Contemporary practices of borrowing from or looking to non-western cultures for inspiration is in line with a colonial logic where different or ‘other’ ideas are understood as resources or tools that western people feel entitled to take or use as they please. Often, because non-western cultures don’t place the same value on authorship or the identity of the artist, and work is made anonymously or collectively, western people may make the mistake of assuming that it is unattributed, that it doesn’t belong to anyone and is therefore fair game to be taken or used. However, many Indigenous societies understand their cultural objects and practices to belong to everyone in their community—past, present, and future.

Craft is deeply implicated in the highly industrialized production chain of the globalized consumer market; hundreds of thousands of craftspeople in the global south work in harsh, sweated conditions to provide crafted objects for western consumers who fetishize the handmade. Historically, craft has been a contact zone between societies as a primary staple in commerce, trade and public relations. Over the centuries, societies have adapted and adopted the processes and materials of other societies in the crafting of everyday common use goods and exquisite decorative objects alike. Only under the recent western cultural period of modernism have craft processes and craft objects been examined using the languages and values historically reserved for practices and objects called art. Modernism, in its exaltation of purity and authenticity—the authentic character of materials, the stripped down purity of design—divorced the crafted object from the social, economic, and cultural specificity of its making in order to present it as a finite, fixed, and finished objet d’art. Thus creating the popular myth around craft as a pastoral anti-capitalist, anti-industrial practice where individuals are connected, through their work and materials, with the products of their labour. In line with a commitment to an anti-capitalist politic, western craftmakers often equate the aesthetic designs and material processes of non-western people with a ‘primitive’, pre-industrial past and a “simpler way of life,” uncorrupted by modernity. And that, in using these design and material components, they can simulate that way of life for themselves through craft.

However, craft cannot be removed from the social and historical reality of its geographic location, ubiquity and function, collective labour and collaborative design, trade and industry, commerce and consumption. It should not be celebrated as one person’s opus or oeuvre: as if the craftsperson whispered the materials and conjured the form pulled from a mystical inspiration soup of assorted traditions, patterns/designs, processes, and materials into a wholly original and innovative form. This is the fantasy of modernism. Western craft needs to stop looking to other places, other societies and other cultures for ‘inspiration’ for content, subject matter, and conceptual positions, moving on from a modernist framework to instead respond to the social, cultural, and political climate of the right-here-and-right-now in Canada.

For many craftspeople in Canada this will be a challenge. Mainstream white racial superiority in Canada today is the result of a historical process whereby whites in Canada (and the United States) legitimated colonizing this continent and dominating its Indigenous inhabitants through moralistic attitudes of paternalism (it’s white people’s responsibility to take care of Indigenous people) and entitlement (all of these natural and cultural resources are available for the taking). In order for the white racial state to succeed in its colonial agenda of expansion and assimilation, it required a united ruling class. Whiteness was constructed as an amalgamated, amorphous racial category void of any ethnic or cultural specificity. Poor, rural, and/or immigrant white settlers were recruited by the state to trade in their ancestral heritage and traditions for racial supremacy in adopting a domesticated, homogenous white Canadian identity. This entitled them to enfranchisement (property ownership and citizenship) at a time when people of African descent were slaves owned as property and Indigenous people were displaced from their ancestral lands and treated like children as wards of the state. This is the historical basis of the white supremacy and racism that structures Canada’s colonialist society today.

I am heartened by the conversations I have with young makers who are engaging with craft. They are learning about craft materials and processes, while using craft to connect with their own lived experience of the world. For them, craft is a means of navigating a contemporary moment fraught with terrifying regressive political attitudes, an increasingly precarious job market, and scary mounting environmental crises, not to mention negotiating their place in relation to shifting gender, racial, cultural, religious, and class categories and values. However, the dominant discussions and spaces that frame craft in Canada need to support and develop these emergent critical practices. Craft poses an opportunity to explore the world we live in today, to understand the space we take up in it, and to recognize our responsibility in crafting tomorrow.

This article was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Studio Magazine

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Sandra Alfoldy・In Memoriam

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