26 February 2007

A Job for The Doctor?

The latest development in the Craft Wars is a fleet of crocheted daleks that have recently hoved into view, featured a couple of days ago on boingboing (American readers - many of you won't know what a dalek is, so a brief update here). Firm evidence, then, that the hobbyists have adopted serious weaponry in the battle to appropriate the concept of craft from the 'fine craft' communities.

Sandra Wilson's original post - both ends of the spectrum - and the comments that it stimulated have raised some important questions. For me, the most telling point raised by Sandra was this: "One end of craft has for some time been keen to distance itself from the term and yet the other end is happy to embrace it and reinvigorate it for a new generation". One reaction to The Guardian's championing of the craft hobbyists - according to one comment made on our blog - is to "find a new word for hand making.... (because) craft just doesn't do it". Talking to other professional makers recently suggests that this view is widespread. In other words, give the hobbyists 'craft' and we'll adopt something else.

Great idea. We have thousands of people worldwide who are getting passionate and involved in craft, we have national newspapers devoting special supplements to it, we have a whole new culture emerging that is embedding craft within everyday life in new ways and often weaving this into radical politics. What better than to turn our backs on this movement, and the opportunities that it presents us with, and retreat into a little world of our own making?

We also have the design industry looking seriously at craft as a source of innovation and underlying philosophy for design practice in a post-industrial age. Last year's Radical Craft conference attracted over 800 people to Art Center Pasadena - one of whom was our own Frances Stevenson who blogged here about it.

A recent comment on our blog made by Andrew Wagner, the new editor of American Craft magazine, argues: "There are so many facets to 'craft' which is precisely what makes it such an exciting, vital, and absolutely alive and kicking field but it is so rarely shown this way...it is always one way or the other and that is where I see the mistakes being made. I think 'craft' needs to proudly display the ranges of the discipline and revel in those."

My frustration for some years is that craft has failed to make a case for itself, and has failed to connect with the wider culture. As a result it becomes ever more exclusive, culturally disconnected and seemingly inarticulate. Our project (along with others such as Sandra Alfoldy's at NSCAD) is seeking to overcome some of the problems by encouraging and enabling a research community to move necessary debates forward, but we clearly need to go further. We need more than academics to work on this - this is not simply a job for well meaning doctors of craft.

Craft practitioners, curators, journalists, hobbyists, designers (and yes, even academics) need to develop and extend dialogue. We need to define the common languages that Sandra is calling for. We need to find ways of not only celebrating diversity, but making more productive links between diverse practices. And we need to realise our common interests, and pursue them together. We need a new vision in the making.


  1. Mike,

    Great post! I'll be considering this all day, trying to figure out how to follow this dialogue.

    (BTW, we 'mericans know Daleks. Dr. Who has been on PBS for years.. and on SciFi channel for 2 years, though I couldn't watch after Chris Eggelston left.)

  2. Debra

    I look forward to reading your comment. And give the new Doctor a try - he's even better than Chris Eccleston. Well, so says my son. I of course stopped watching years ago :-)


  3. Well said, Mike.

    For me, there is big difference between talking about something and actually doing it. The trouble that I see is that we are greatly lacking trained practitioners who are skilled makers, who have been indoctrinated into the "system" and who are, at the same time, skilled researchers who have the academic training, creditability and wherewithal to back up what they say in a meaningful manner.

    I can this because I have jumped on the grenade myself and I know how long and painful the road is.

    It is not easy to become good at one thing and then abandon it for another. It hurts, a lot... as you have likely experienced.

  4. Anonymous9:23 am

    I have just revisited your blog and am irritated to note that a comment I left on “Both Ends of the Spectrum” appears to have been manipulated, and its meaning distorted, to further your “A job for the Doctor” discussion. What I actually said was “Perhaps it is time to find a new word for hand-making that is the result of a long gestation of study and practice. Judging by the Guardian's publication "Craft" just doesn't do it!”

    To reiterate, I have no problem with the media encouraging people to take up home or hobby craft practice, rather I was simply railing at the poverty of imagination demonstrated by the Guardian Guide to Craft and its misleading generic title. Yes, Andrew Wagner is wholesome and supportive of the broad spectrum within making that should rightfully incorporate non-professionals, but he hadn’t actually seen this particular Guardian supplement when he added his post!

    Please refer to my second comment “Both Ends of the Spectrum” to see that we do actually share the same view about encouragement, cross-pollination and development.

    Having spent 25 years working as, first a maker, and then as a gallery administrator/exhibitions co-ordinator, I do not see myself as one of your ossifying, craft-snob stuckists. Through practice and experience my partner and I worked from one end of your ‘Spectrum’ to the other. We grafted in low-end volume production and finished up presenting contemporary art and fine craft. I see no distinction between the two with regard to quality of intent and execution.

    Nevertheless I am frustrated by the number of young middle class professionals who came into our gallery with no understanding of the process and consequently no idea of the valuation of craft work, and who frequently tried to barter me down. When asked their own area of expertise, ‘teachers’ was a worryingly frequent response!

    I hope you do get out to talk to more makers and discover the correlating reason why so many in the UK and elsewhere (Andrew Wagner, please respond), find it difficult to get a fair price for their work. Poor, quick-fix design ideas, like how to make a chandelier out of coat hangers and jam jars (one of the Guardian’s suggested projects), do not help to redress this issue, and educating the public to understand and participate in meaningful craft practice will take a far greater amount of effort than was put into the Guardian’s Guide to Craft.