29 May 2006

Why define??

Leslie Madsen-Brooks in California wonders why we should be defining Fine craft and creating a hierachy. I don't believe we are creating a hirearchy, but clarifying what is already out there, and answering questions. This comment on her blog is common among craftspeople.

Oooo Girl!!
Comment by debra roby posted Sun, 2006/05/28 - 7:09pm
You and I are gonna have to sit and have a long talk sometime! You are writing about things close to my heart.

I've been trying to write about a valid definition of craft and crafts. It's as hard as trying to catch mercury.

Leslie continues with this comment. "Part of the problem with defining an object as "fine craft" or "art" is that the object may be defined as merely everyday handiwork in one decade may be praised as art or fine craft in the next."

I agree with her. However, this does not make them Fine Craft, but examples of fine handiwork - often traditional craft. The process or skill is traditional, the object is traditional, the materials are traditional, the craftsperson may have outstanding skill in excecuting this craft, but it hasn't moved on. It is not 'new' in the process of thought, in the experimentation in materials or techniques or in the production of something unique.

Leslie wrote " ... that poor African-American women in the South have not usually been associated with intellectual practice."

Comming from a primative and very poor area in southern Africa, I watched an uneducated, non-intellectual young woman, push the boundries of her traditional craft of basketmaking into a new realm of thinking. She experimented with her materials and the 'function' of the basket, and produced a well crafted, unique, highly desirable basket,(see above) which changed the 'function'(making it one that traditionally held maize meal to one that can carry water as well, or be used as decoration)and the aesthetic of it. Although this woman is not an accademic, she is a thinker. She pushes boundries, experiments, responds to a different voice to that of her teachers, and could, in time, produce a piece of Fine Craft. It is not about the role of women, or the status of women. It applies to craftsmen too.

With so much confusion about craft I believe there needs to be a set of clear definitions. Do you have any good ones? What do you think defines Traditional Craft? What defines Popular Craft - hobby craft, pop craft, DIY craft etc all fits into this catagory ... or does it? Is there something that rises above what is out there and can be defined as Fine Craft? You tell me!


  1. Liz, thanks for your clarification.

    I worry a bit that one of my comments here is taken out of context. When I wrote that "poor African-American women in the South have not usually been associated with intellectual practice," I follow that up with a clarification: "Segments on NPR and PBS reveal that these women do think about their aesthetic choices and see their quilts as individual creative achievements. But outsiders have not always recognized their quilts as such." (For your readers, my original post, and Debra's comments, can be found here.)

    Of course, I see black women crafters in the U.S. as partaking in intellectual practice; it's many other outsiders who frequently do not, and therein lies my concern.

    Another concern I have: What happens when we as academics create new categories that may not be hierarchies but sound like hierarchies to laypeople and thus become de facto ones? I know that "fine" is already an adjective being applied to certain kinds of craft, but here in the U.S., "fine" definitely has prestige associated with it: fine arts vs. folk arts, for example, even though folk artists frequently push the boundaries you describe as much as do fine artists.

    I'm really enjoying the craft research blog. Keep up the good work!

  2. So from reading this, are you defining fine craft based less on the product than on the process? It's not what you make but what you think about in making it?

    I'll admit I'm fascinated with the process of craft. That's why I write about it. But I never considered it a criterion for defining a piece.

    I liked Leslie's discussion of the Gee's Bend quilts. Are they fine craft? They are not "fine examples of traditional craft".

    Previously to being discovered and packaged by an "expert", these quilts would likely have been rejected from any quilt show that they were entered in. They have been labelled as poor workmanship or strange design elements. The "quilt police" would have dismissed them out of hand.

    So were they always fine craft but people just couldn't tell? That doesn't seem right.

    Are they fine craft now? Why?

    Or are they merely hype?

    As to your question about traditional craft/popular craft/fine craft. Like I said, I feel lost in trying to define it. However, I'm fascinated by the discussion.

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