31 May 2006

Inclusive definitions

Leslie Madsen-Brooks says: "I understand that within any study, the researchers need to define their area of study. Otherwise, the project's scope can become too large to address in a single article or book. That said, an attempt to define "fine craft" seems especially risky and high-stakes."

She rightly indicates temporal and cultural shifts in our definitions of "fine craft" and "art" and the dangers of embracing "a hierarchy of craft". I think that we are all highly cautious of definitions that smack of hierarchy - rather we must acknowledge and map diverse practices. A key objective in what we are discussing and researching must be to enhance the value and status of craft which, in a phrase I've used elsewhere, is usually considered "domestic, working class or just plain thick". Thus it simply doesn't appear on the radar of most cultural commentary, apart from those of us working at its outer edges.

What has been interesting over the last week or so is that discourses around craft in the United States have collided with those that we are engaged in over here in the UK and Europe. Our colleagues in the US are concerned with the shifting boundaries between art and craft, framed by feminist interpretations of creative practices (to overly simplify their positions). The issue debated is that of the status of the crafted object as a reflection of the culture that gives rise to it. This clearly is a question that is of key concern to those discussing the crafts in the US.

Its not so much that our concerns (this side of the pond) are hugely different - it's just that we are driven by a different set of issues which arise from the politics of academic inquiry in the UK. These issues focus very much on the status and standing of craft, but in a somewhat different respect.

It's evident that our blog is being read by quite a few colleagues in the US (and elsewhere outside the UK), so for their benefit let me try to summarise some of the key drivers. For over a decade in the UK we have benefited from new sources of funding for research in art and design in our Universities. This has provided opportunities for practice-based PhDs in craft that have demonstrated the value of craft thinking as a unique source of knowledge (in the fairly tight academic sense). This does not appear to be happening in the same way in the US. I've provided a summary of some of this on my own blog. The motivation of many of us trying to further such work is not to define a "new hierarchy" of craft, but to demonstrate how a system and process of thinking that integrates hand and brain has equal value to that of so-called intellectually-based knowledge. To my mind, it's craft knowledge that we must champion and the inherent value of which we must assert and argue for. But while we are fortunate in being able to do such research, there are others in the design research community who are seeking to undermine the validity of such approaches to research.

A project such as this (Craft: Past Present and Future at the University of Dundee) is a unique opportunity to take the debate forward and to weave together radical perspectives of craft and craft knowledge. We should try to move towards a perspective of craft that acknowledges the rich diversity of craft practices, while identifying the relationships between (for example) craft activism/DIY culture, craft as an expression of disenfrachised cultures, craft-centred research and "fine craft".

"Fine Craft" as a category to define those practices that extend innovation and practice in craft in a western-industrial professional context is a valid subject of inquiry and investigation. But let us not for a moment entertain the idea that it represents some sort of pinnacle of the craft hierarchy. For those seeking to assert the value of craft in relation to fine art (and Jorunn Veiteberg in her excellent book is doing precisely this), "fine craft" is an extremely useful definition.

As academics we define, we pick apart, we focus on specifics (if we didn't then we wouldn't get the research funding). But at the same time we must keep our eye on the politics of those practices we seek to explore and understand. Let us keep this debate going, explore differences of emphasis and perspective, but commit ourselves to seeking a synthesis that will raise the profile and status of craft in the 21st century.

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