19 June 2006

Problems with the F-word

For many of us working in craft research, we have spent a not inconsiderable time anguishing over the use and validity of the C-word. Some prefer not to use "craft" at all, using handles such as "designer-maker" or "intelligent making" to describe their practices and research interests. Now, as debates on this blog have shown, we face new complications with the F-word.

"Fine" craft opens up a new contested territory of practice and understanding. As I've said previously, I think that it is a categorisation of creative practice that is useful to explore, but I would appreciate some clearer definition from somebody about what it is.

It seems to me that the idea of "fine craft" could be derived from one of two things. The first is "fine jewellery", a well used and understood term that broadly means:
Jewels with precious gem set (diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire in platinum or gold setting) differing from semi-precious jewels (such as amethyst, aquamarine, tourmaline in gold or silver setting) and costume jewellery (imitation stones in base metals, gold-plated settings). The difference is in the distribution and sales channels since fine jewellery is most exclusively sold through high-end independent sellers or exclusive jewellery chain stores.
In other words, the "fineness" refers to its economic value: craft for rich people. However, it is clearly the case that craft for rich people in the 21st century need not be defined simply in terms of the economic value of the materials from which it is made.

David Poston's treacle-tin armlet

David Poston's laser welded armlet made of treacle tins was one item in this year's Col lect exhibition. Germaine Greer referred to this piece in her review of Col lect in The Guardian, which stressed both the high cost of much work on show, and its lack of utility:
"There was only one basket maker, almost no cutlery, few textiles. Everything was meant to be displayed, not used. It is a feature of 21st-century life that craft is discontinuous with our lives; our dwellings have become showrooms for conspicuous consumer durables."
So, to take "fine craft" as a definition related to "fine jewellery", we are talking about symbols of conspicuous consumption - beautifully crafted, but exclusive and "discontinuous with our lives."

study for grey areasonly onesuspend

The second derivation could be "fine art", where we are stressing the conceptual content of the work. Caroline Broadhead, whose work is shown above, is prominent amongst those makers whose work bridges craft/fine art. The difficulties of bridging this divide, especially in terms of the institutional obstacles presented, are very well explored by Jorunn Veiteberg.

The semantics of the f-word itself aside, a further interpretation of "fine craft" could be that which is professionally-defined - in other words, craft produced by art school graduates. This professional segmentation of creative practice is also noticable in fine art, where the art establishment is rigorous in its policing. The reason that the UK's top selling and highest profile painter is in the permanent collection of only one public gallery in the country (in Kircaldy) is less to do with quality of his work, and more to do with the fact that he's a former mining engineer from Fife who is self-taught. As Sir Terence Conran says of Jack Vettriano:
'They turn their backs on him because his work has been reproduced on posters, which I think is incredibly elitist and snobbish. In Scotland the art establishment has sneered at him because he is self-taught."
So, which is it?

As we await responses, check out a recent article in The Guardian on the new political crafters. It quotes Betsy Greer, who says:
"Each time you participate in crafting you are making a difference, whether it's fighting against useless materialism or making items for charity ... it is possible to go beyond banners, email petitions and chants as ways of fighting for a cause you believe in. You could have a knit-in, papier-mache puppets or teach a crafty class for kids."
This, it seems to me, follows the long historical role of craft which is a way of thinking and acting upon the world as a means of self-development, critical reflection, education and making culture. And at times, to pay the bills, it's about making stuff for rich people.