Adorn Yourself With Attitude: Blister Packs, Fishing Weights, Toe Splints and Jewellery? Try it On. Blake Gopnik
On Style Mark Kingwell
Writing Craft: An Interdiscursive Approach Robin Metcalf
Writing About Craft: Questions and Answers
I picked up this book in a quest to situation my thoughts about the looming Crafts vs. Art debate that I know is alive and kicking on both sides of the aisle and that I have also been playing with in my head since making the definitive 'switch' from painting and drawing to textile art. What do those two words mean together? Textiles is not an art form in an of itself, in the same way that 'painting' is not (one can, after all, paint a house...). But when someone says 'I am an artist' or 'we are going to an art gallery' the kind of work that these statements bring to mind is most likely painting, drawing, and other 'traditional' art forms like sculpture. Increasingly, I'd suggest that postmodern and post contemporary art forms (like video or performance art or installation) are also brought to mind. But how many people think 'oh, you're going to see some embroidery!'? Not many, I'd bet. In part, I personally feel uncomfortable about this because I see what I do and make as being art and not craft - yet there is lots of craft in what it is that I do. Undeniably so. And thus, my journey into the minefield of contemporary craft began here.
This book is the published papers of a symposium of the same title held in March of 1999 in Toronto. That accounts for the obvious Canadian emphasis in many of the papers. I am not used to reading conference proceedings that are just reproductions of the presenter's scripts, and I found that very off putting (this is a point about my own personal reading and thinking style, based on my academic background rather than about the subject of the book).
Overall, this book gave a decent enough overview of three main areas of Craft (in Canada, and often more widely applicable). The first was on the history of craft in Canada, including how museum and government practices have differentiated craft from art and the implications that has had on 'craft' practices. This was the least widely applicable section and so I skimmed it rather quickly. However, there were some really interesting points made particularly in the opening chapter about what craft is and the longevity of 'the handmade', even in modern contexts in which the handmade is not necessary any more. It got me thinking about ancient artworks and the way that functional vessels were also used in non-functional ways: like normal oil amphorae (pots) being decorated in distinctive ways and becoming trophies (though still filled with oil - the oil is the main prize).
The second section was the longest, purporting to look at craft 'theory', but actually many of the papers looked at craft practice and education. I particularly liked the two sections by craft practitioners on ceramics (Walter Ostrom) and woodworking (Peter Fleming). Ostrom discusses the idea of objects having both material and technical contexts, and that the theory of craft has to be bound up in craft history. I get the point, and I agree about the multifarious contextualisation of objects and how necessary that is, but I wonder about the idea of history being so important for practice (of course, this is not at all what Ostrom says, he is discussing craft theory here, which - like art theory - definitely needs a firm understanding of the history of the materials, methods, and subject matter). But, if we get caught up in the necessity of history in craft practice then do we neglect our own histories? When we are children we paint and draw without understanding the historical or theoretical context of the medium(s) and technique(s) we are employing. Can we not draw similar lines from messing about with play-doh to throwing pots? This came around again in Flemming's paper when he says "we gradually find ourselves captivated by the act of making, generating an object that never existed before". This is, obviously, not a craft specific thing (though Fleming is talking in the context of woodworking, and so making objects that, by and large, have some kind of functional purpose). In my own work I find the act of making is the most engaging - it is also the place where I am the most emotionally invested in the work. This was the same when I was painting as it is when I am stitching. But - to turn that on its head somewhat - when I make clothing for myself the captivation comes in the act of wearing, that is of using the object. The making is secondary to that. So, these are two points of thought that I suspect I will come back to: history and theory context, and the captivation in making over using.
The third section of the collection is about critical writing about craft. It was interesting in parts, but I found it very dull and repetitive if I'm honest. It was shocking to go from a very practitioner-led survey of the history and theory of craft in its many forms, to this section which seemed extraordinarily pompous (and that's coming from someone with three degrees in Classics, which is probably the most pompous of academic disciplines). I do not really wish to say any more about the section, but I suppose I should. This seemed to be the only place where the art vs. craft dichotomy was thrown into very stark relief. Several papers try to make out that art critics don't engage in craft because they don't have the historical context for craft practices. I found this argument to be weak every time it was raised (including in the reporting of the discussion section at the end of the book). The implication seemed to be that art critics were too busy to learn the context (in the financial argument of this case, it makes complete sense - the critic doesn't have enough paid time to learn the necessary history to complete the piece) and also that craft critics were usually not critics in the same sense as art critics and were too nice and fluffy with one another. There were very many issues raised and no real discussion about solutions.
Having said that, this book was written some thirty years ago now, and things have moved on. In part that's why I don't want to go too much into this final section - because I think the distinction between 'art' and 'craft' has been blurred more than it was then. I also think that my art form - textile or fibre art - has gained more recognition as an art form in that time (as have other crafts, including pottery, while others perhaps have not).
Overall, this book didn't blow me away, and I wouldn't bother reading it again.